After months of speculation, Danica Patrick officially announced her leap into the Nationwide Series, where she'll drive in 12 races for JR Motorsports . But unlike most racers transitioning into the sport, Patrick's impact is already being felt.
The first female racer to enter NASCAR competition with a win in another major racing series -- she won the Japan IndyCar race in 2008 and plans to continue to race full time in that series -- Patrick has not only heightened the profile of women racers but of stock car racing as well. Fans and media swarmed her recent test session in an Automobile Racing Club of America car at Daytona International Speedway and when she recently landed in Charlotte for a promotional appearance, she says a fan told her that he would now begin watching NASCAR.
Without ever taking a lap in a NASCAR race, Patrick has become a polarizing figure. She brings strong credentials to a successful team. A high-profile athlete, she's accustomed to the glare of the spotlight. She's been edgy with her sponsors, fiery with her competitors and passionate with her racing -- all elements that craft an intriguing addition to the NASCAR realm.
Drivers universally state that they believe she can be competitive. Certainly there will be some adjusting to both the car and the nature of the racing -- contact is commonplace in Nationwide while it can be devastating in the open-wheel ranks -- and she will be going back and forth between the stock cars and her full-time IndyCar driving role. But drivers recognize that the addition of Patrick to NASCAR brings more fans -- and potentially sponsorship -- to the sport.
And most want to help her as much as possible.
Kevin Harvick, who fields cars in the Nationwide Series and races there from time to time, has nothing but positive comments to make about Patrick and her addition to the series.
"Danica's a great person," he says. "She's very motivated, she's in very good shape, she's very prepared for what's coming, what she thinks is coming anyway. Obviously there will be a lot of things for her to experience for the first time. She's going to be under a lot of scrutiny."
He, like others, adds that she's a positive addition.
"She's very good for our sport and I think everybody understands that she's going to be good for our sport," Harvick says.
Patrick, for her part, is downplaying the excitement ushering her into the stock-car world.
She hasn't yet decided whether she'll follow her ARCA debut at Daytona with a run in the Nationwide race there since that race is pretty much a showdown among Cup competitors making an appearance in the Nationwide ranks for the weekend.
Right now, she's tempering her goals and talking about trying to learn the car and gain ground in NASCAR. When she addresses the mania surrounding her move to the sport, she talks about feeling "really lucky to have such excitement."
Neither she nor her competitors seem concerned when it comes to how she can handle the pressure that will escort her into the series.
Patrick obviously recognizes how much attention she will garner each time she heads to the track. While she's accustomed to gaining her share of that wherever she goes, she's taking a larger risk in the uncharted waters of competing in a stock car.
Patrick doesn't seem concerned about putting her racing reputation on the line or facing the increased pressure and scrutiny her decision has already garnered.
"Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and all the popular drivers in NASCAR do a great job of promoting the sport," she said during a recent news conference. "I really hope that I can add to that, but I don't feel pressure involved within it. It pushes me a little bit to get the most out of myself on the race track, but I don't feel pressure that I have to grow the sport or do anything like that. I just feel like it's a great opportunity for me."
Still, others say that adding Patrick to the sport, particularly to the Nationwide Series, will definitely boost that profile.
"It will have an impact, yes, definitely," Speedway Motorsports Inc. Chairman and CEO Bruton Smith says. "She will add a lot. (Reporters) will write more and you will televise Danica every chance you get because she is fabulous news, no doubt about it."
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing co-owner Felix Sabates agrees.
He says that she will obviously face a transition when it comes to learning the stock cars and the bumping nature of NASCAR racing, but that she is clearly a good addition for the series.
"I think it will be great for the sport," he says.
Perhaps it is her high profile in IndyCar racing that could make her transition go more smoothly.
As much as any other competitor that has transitioned into NASCAR in recent years, Patrick is accustomed to the spotlight. She's featured in a series of somewhat racy commercials for GoDaddy.com, has appeared in Sports Illustrated 's swimsuit issue and is generally outspoken.
Throughout her multiple media appearances as she announced her decision and her upcoming plans, she has been open and forthright about her expectations and the potential challenges she faces.
So are her team co-owners, who say that Patrick should be able to net top-20 finishes and clearly are not putting any pressure on her level of performance at the beginning. And that is where the already high-profile nature of her racing might actually come in handy.
While Patrick will be gaining attention with a new audience, she is accustomed to being the center of attention and proving her skills. So that shouldn't be a distraction for her and she should be free to focus on just learning and developing her stock-car skills.
"I give her a lot of credit. I'm impressed with the fact that she's willing to take that risk knowing the scrutiny that she's going to be under and the challenge," says four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon. "She's already seen other talented drivers in her series fail [in NASCAR], so I think that it's great that she's taking on that challenge. It says a lot about her character and her as a race-car driver."