Keeping Pace

Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Johnson Take Danica Detour


Associated Press Still riding the momentum of her historic first win, Danica Patrick will start in the second row of the 92nd Indy 500.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Associated Press Still riding the momentum of her historic first win, Danica Patrick will start in the second row of the 92nd Indy 500. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

We have tried to create stories out of other things, like incidents on the track, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race schedule, and potential team and sponsor changes for next season. We juggle numbers and create scenarios and throw the word “if” around a lot. Still, we keep coming back to Jimmie Johnson–until now!

Guest Column By Cathy Elliott

For several weeks now, we have pretty much accepted the fact that most of our conversation for the remainder of the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season will revolve around Jimmie Johnson.

Some people don’t like it; they say it’s the NASCAR equivalent of eating the same meal three times a day, every day. It’s tasty, but you get tired of it after a while.

Others are OK with it -- how magnanimous of us, by the way, to give our official blessing for racing history to go ahead and be made right before our very eyes.

We have tried to create stories out of other things, like incidents on the track, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race schedule, and potential team and sponsor changes for next season. We juggle numbers and create scenarios and throw the word “if” around a lot. Still, we keep coming back to Johnson.

There is only one driver with enough horsepower to attract our attention in another direction ... and wouldn’t you know, he has gone and done it. Dale Earnhardt Jr’s magnetism has, at least temporarily, yanked us right out of Johnson’s enormous force field.

Our old pal Source, who in this case seems to have an awful lot of details, has let it slip that Earnhardt’s company, JR Motorsports, is about to cut a NASCAR Nationwide Series deal with a novice stock car driver for the next couple of seasons.

Subtle hint number one: It’s someone who has never raced stock cars before.

Subtle hint number two: It’s a woman.

Subtle hint number three: Do you really need subtle hint number three?

After years of speculation and conjecture, it appears that Danica Patrick will finally make the move to NASCAR. It’s reportedly a part-time arrangement, including both Nationwide and ARCA races. Patrick will also continue to compete full-time in what has, to date, been her series of choice, the IRL.

Explosive announcements like this one are great. All you have to do is say the words, then sit back and wait for the fallout.

The first shot fired across the bow regarding Patrick’s move to stock car racing is one we hear every time a “top tier” seat becomes available -- There are already a bunch of talented drivers out there without NASCAR deals.

It is tempting to turn that comment into something prejudicial against women in racing. But I’m going to be optimistic and say I don’t think that’s the issue. It might just be more of a prejudice against open-wheel racing in general, because it is true that there is a willing, eager and somewhat ready talent pool of drivers out there, already experienced behind the wheels of stock cars.

The implication of that comment is the issue. One might infer that the speaker feels Patrick is lacking in talent.

Wrong. Her win/loss ratio may be considered a bit one-sided, but she has to be taken seriously. She was the Indy car series Rookie of the Year in 2005, and was the first woman in history to win an Indy car race. She can drive.

I know people who could identify the entire 43-car field of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races just from looking at nothing but the associate sponsor decals on the left rear quarter-panel, but couldn’t name five Indy car drivers on a bet. Those folks know who Danica Patrick is, though. She attracts attention; she’s interesting.

Someone much wiser than myself -- which comprises most of the people in the continental United States and some parts of Canada -- once advised me that when you make other people’s entertainment your job, you never have any fun.

And that’s why we watch sports, because it’s fun. We don’t want to worry about the more grown-up side of things. We don’t want our entertainment to be a business.

Too bad. Sports is a very large business indeed, and one that Danica Patrick is going to be very good for.

The ARCA Series is going to get a real shot in the arm -- and in the grandstands, and on TV -- from having Patrick competing in some of their events. The Nationwide Series is already sitting pretty as the second most popular form of motorsports in the country, but when Danica is in the race, you can bet it won’t hurt anyone’s feelings. 

The cringe potential is there, to be sure; Patrick ultimately may not make much of a splash, giving all the nay-sayers their gloating moment in the sun. On the other hand, she may have a real aptitude for stock cars. She may emerge as a legitimate contender, moving to the front of the field and bringing legions of new fans right along with her.

We just don’t know what’s going to happen. But at least it’s something different to talk about, and that’s what we’ve all been begging for, right?

Speaking of which, I wonder what Jimmie Johnson thinks about the Danica Patrick news. Someone should ask him ...




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Keeping Pace

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




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