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Keeping Pace

Danica and the Power of NASCAR

On December 8, all the speculation that’s been going on for months, even years, finally reached its conclusion when Danica Patrick, the face of the IndyCar Series, formally announced a two-year NASCAR Nationwide Series deal with JR Motorsports.

Guest Column by Cathy Elliott

Today, I went online and ordered a No. 7 Danica Patrick T-shirt.

Let’s just make one thing perfectly clear from the outset — I am not a person who is inclined to wear hot girls on my T-shirts. I have a shelf full of Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers T-shirts, and if they make one with Gerard Butler on it, count me in, but that’s it. In a perfect world, I’d be wearing a hot girl IN my T-shirts, but that’s another dream for another day.

Because today we’re talking about someone else’s dream, an early Christmas wish come true for NASCAR. On December 8, all the speculation that’s been going on for months, even years, finally reached its conclusion when Danica Patrick, the face of the IndyCar Series, formally announced a two-year NASCAR Nationwide Series deal with JR Motorsports.

The team is co-owned by Kelley Earnhardt, Tony Eury, Jr., Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the face of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

When the faces of two major motorsports series come together, it makes for a pretty picture indeed, and an even better photo op.

Sitting around talking with my friends lately, who are mostly guys, I am often asked my opinion of Danica’s upcoming foray into the world of stock car racing. I think they’re expecting me to say two things, the first being “Meow,” and the second the prediction of a miserable failure.

Remember that Pantene shampoo ad campaign in the 1980s featuring model Kelly Le Brock? She opened the commercial with the line, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” In my experience, men seem to think women are always critical of other women who are younger, prettier or more successful than they are. Sometimes that’s true, but not always.

There seems to be no logical rule on this. We’re not crazy about Demi Moore, for example, but we love Sandra Bullock.  Jennifer Aniston is a favorite; Angelina Jolie, not so much. Sharon Stone sets us to grinding our teeth, but Drew Barrymore makes us smile.

Here’s what we know about Danica Patrick.

Her racing career began in go-karts at an early age. She gradually moved up through the ranks until her big break came — she signed with Rahal Letterman in 2002, perhaps the only thing David Letterman hasn’t felt the need to apologize for in recent memory.

She is a former Rookie of the Year winner.

She moved to a new team, Andretti Autosport, in 2007, earned her first victory in 2008 and finished third in the 2009 Indianapolis 500.

She plans to ease her way into NASCAR, competing in the ARCA Series race at Daytona and the NASCAR Nationwide Series races in Fontana and Las Vegas to open the season.

“I think my determination and commitment are really going to be what makes this thing go well,” she said in a recent press conference. “I’m a competitive driver, and I always want to do well, and this will be absolutely no different.” 

She hates to lose and sometimes behaves badly when that happens.

She also likes stiletto heels.

As I write this, it occurs to me that Patrick is starting to sound a little bit like Kyle Busch. Without the stilettos, of course, as far as we know. 

When a big name such as Patrick’s is on the entry list of a support race, it brings a smile to a track promoter’s face. I daresay the ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway in February 2010 may post the largest attendance, and the widest grins, in that series’ history.

She is a role model for aspiring young racers.

And despite her immense popularity over in the IndyCar Series, the magazine covers, music videos, TV commercials and the rest, she has proven to have some humility. To begin at the bottom when you’ve gotten so comfortable at the top surely must be a bitter pill to swallow, but she’s taking her medicine like a big girl, and smiling as she does it.

So yes, I do like Danica Patrick, very much. She is a successful athlete and will be good for the sport of NASCAR. I am looking forward to wearing my new T-shirt while watching what she can do behind the wheel of a stock car, and her story will be an interesting one to follow.

Because it isn’t the story of some wannabe competitor, or of “girl power.” It is the story of a race car driver and the power of NASCAR.

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Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.

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