|Danica Patrick and GoDaddy.com CEO Bob Parsons unveil her No.7|
Chevrolet for the 2012 season. Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images
By Rebecca Kivak
JR Motorsports is glad to have Danica Patrick for a full season in 2012, as the IndyCar driver will leave the open-wheel series behind after this year to embark upon the next level of her career in NASCAR.
“We have Danica for one year. For JR Motorsports, it’s exciting to be involved and as she continues her climb and career in NASCAR, we’ll always be one of the cornerstones that helped her achieve where she goes. From a historical standpoint, that’s a great place for JR Motorsports to be in,” said Kelley Earnhardt, general manager and co-owner of JR Motorsports.
On Thursday, Patrick finally confirmed what everyone has been speculating for weeks. After running a partial Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports since 2010, Patrick will make the move to NASCAR next year, running a full-time schedule in the Nationwide Series with the team as well as part-time Sprint Cup schedule for Stewart-Haas Racing.
The thought of fielding a Sprint Cup team for Patrick was tempting, but it was an endeavor that Earnhardt felt JR Motorsports was not ready to take on at the current time.
“We discussed whether that would make sense for everyone involved, and quite frankly, JR Motorsports just isn’t ready to bite that bullet. We have partners under the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella with Stewart-Haas where it did make sense and they were interested in adding cars on the Sprint Cup side, so I think it worked out and for the best for everybody,” Earnhardt said.
“We like where we’re at, we like the position that we’re in with the Nationwide Series. … A Cup effort is a big bullet to bite and I just don’t think that we’re there yet and ready to make that commitment,” Earnhardt said.
The last two seasons with Patrick “have been a good experience with her. She’s shown that she has what it takes to race these cars. Her learning curve, she’s adjusted very quickly,” Earnhardt said.
“We’re excited to have that consistency week in and week out in the series with JR Motorsports. (We’re) really just excited that the decision is made that she’s coming to NASCAR and to our sport. I think it’ll be great for the sport, for the future of our sport, and our fans.”
In 20 Nationwide Series starts, Patrick has three top-10 finishes, including a 4th-place finish at Las Vegas, the highest finish for a female driver in NASCAR history.
Her education in NASCAR has come with its struggles. Patrick averaged a 28th-place average finish in her 13 starts during the 2010 season. It took Patrick time to adjust from the lighter, open IndyCar race cars she was familiar with to the bulkier, heavier stockcars, which was reasonable to expect.
However, in 2011 things started to click for Patrick. In her seven Nationwide starts in 2011, Patrick averages a 16th-place average finish, a full 12 spots higher than during her first season. Her three top-10 finishes all came this year.
“From the onset, we didn’t know what to expect. You go into anything with a positive attitude that good things are going to come out of it,” Earnhardt admitted. “Race by race, especially this year, as Danica went back to some tracks that she ran on last year, I think this year, she has proven that she can get it done. She’s being consistent, she hasn’t wrecked a lot of cars, it’s been important in her journey on the way up here, and so I think that in of itself has given Tony (Eury) Jr. and the team that is behind her the confidence that she can do this.”
Evaluating Danica’s 23.6-place average finish across both seasons, Earnhardt said, “From our standpoint, that’s not a bad thing, considering that she did not have any stockcar experience beforehand. … Even a mid-20th place average finish at her point of the game of where’s she at, that’s not very disappointing.
“She’s been solid. She is dedicated and she pays attention, she asks a lot of questions, she learns from what they tell her. All crew chiefs and teams want to see that kind of attitude put toward so they can go forward and move ahead.”
Tony Eury Jr., Patrick’s crew chief, agrees.
“Danica has done a great job for us. She's earned the respect from everyone on the team. That's not something that's just handed to you. You have to earn it, and she's earned it. We see how devoted she is, and that's what you want to see from your driver,” Eury Jr. said in a statement.
“It's a steep learning curve. She has come a long way in a short period of time. She has gone from basically speaking a different language to being a top-10 contender in one year. That's impressive no matter how you look at it,” he said.
Team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. praised Patrick’s hard-working demeanor.
“Her work ethic is probably the best of anyone in the sport. People don't understand how difficult is to do what she did - racing two totally different cars at the same time. I'm glad she gets the opportunity to devote all of her attention to this car, because I think she's going to continue getting better,” Earnhardt Jr. said in a statement.
Kelley Earnhardt believes Patrick’s move to NASCAR will be far-reaching, drawing the interest of potential sponsors who may not otherwise be tuned into the sport.
“This is going to open up a lot of eyeballs that maybe haven’t paid attention to our sport in terms of Fortune 500 companies and potential sponsors that have female brands that can be represented to maybe if they can see someone having success in the series, you know, maybe it opens them up to take more of a chance on a female that might not have made it into the sport yet but could be on their way up,” Earnhardt said.
“I just think it opens a lot of doors and opens a lot of eyes. Awareness is always a great thing, so something good can come out of it.”
She also believe Patrick’s entry can serve as a springboard for more female drivers looking to make their way into NASCAR’s ranks.
“I think what this does, for Danica to be involved in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series, is to give those females a lot more hope, that it can be done, because we haven’t had a lot of success with females in the sport throughout our years and so this continues to give them hope that they can reach for their dreams and chase their dreams, that’s not just a wasted effort,” Earnhardt said. “They have someone to look up to that has managed their brand and done well for herself so they have someone to model themselves after.”
Earnhardt noted that Patrick could also draw more female viewers to the sport.
“As far as a fan, definitely I think it will increase viewership of females, young girls and the moms to pay attention to the sport and see what’s going on,” she said, using her two daughters, who have been following Patrick’s career, as examples.