NASCAR’s New Bad Boy?

June 24, 2009

danicaThere is much speculation in garages — and much salivating in sports marketing and sponsorship departments around the country — now that IndyCar driver Danica Patrick’s contract is coming to an end later this year. Will Patrick make the leap from IndyCars to stock cars? All tongue wagging aside, the thought brings up a number of interesting considerations to ponder about the future of this one-time IndyCar winner. If she does head over, it will certainly introduce a whole new dynamic to NASCAR. (Apologies in advance: I’m not including any sexy photos or links to racy GoDaddy commercials, nor am I referencing the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in any way. You can find plenty of those things by doing your own Google search.)

NASCAR is a logical step for Patrick in terms of further developing both her skills and her brand. While some of the tracks and the format of the races are similar, the cars are a completely different kind of beast and the length of the races are in some cases double what she is used to running, meaning entirely different physical and mental challenges. Few drivers have made the leap and done so successfully, and while she’s not the first woman to hit the track in NASCAR, few have made a name for themselves that someone other than an avid fan would remember. Patrick, on the other hand, already has a name that others remember. In fact, only two NASCAR drivers currently have a bigger name than she: Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., as reported in NASCAR Scene this week. Clearly she’s doing something right.

If she makes the leap, it will only be to a top-notch team that can support her with the best equipment, best marketing and put her well on the path to winning a championship. Reports suggest the standard four: Richard Childress, Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, or Roush. But if I were her, I would seriously consider adding Stewart-Haas into the mix. Think about it: owner/driver Tony Stewart made the same leap from IndyCar to NASCAR years ago and has seen great success. Working with a mentor with similar experience, on a team that has new ownership allowing the chance to shape the future of the team, on equipment that was built to be the best but has only seen recent success with the addition of its new co-owner — sure, it would be a risk, but still a great opportunity to consider.

Regardless of performance on the track, Patrick has nailed what many of her peers fail to recognize or at least master: that driving a car in a major racing series is only half of racing. Those who “get it” understand that happy sponsors equate to a full ride. She has built herself a brand that that is part sex appeal, part badass. She is both celebrated and berated for both. It’s highly likely she’ll bring another love/hate relationship to the garage in the mold of Tony, Juan and Kyle — yet another plot twist in the soap opera that is NASCAR (and the reason why 75 million people still declare NASCAR as one of their favorite forms of entertainment today). Sure, she’ll have to prove herself once she’s there, but short term, the fact that we’re already talking about it shows just a glimmer of what she’d do for the sport. Let the silly season begin.