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Danica Patrick will be under bright spotlight in NASCAR

At this point, it is pretty much a novelty. A gimmick. A marketing idea designed to make everyone involved extremely rich. Only when we get years down the road will we know whether it is something more. Perhaps a breakthrough in women's sports. Or a setback to that very cause. Danica Patrick is expected to announce today that she is leaving IndyCar to race full time in NASCAR's junior circuit in 2012 with a few Sprint Cup starts mixed in.

If it comes to pass, this would be big news. Not because Patrick was a dominant IndyCar driver. (She wasn't.) And not because she has a lengthy resume in stock cars. (She doesn't.)

It would be big news because she is a name. A face. A sellable commodity in a sport that worships sponsorships and ratings. So for the time being, checkered flags are incidental.

Patrick is heading to NASCAR because it makes too much sense for her not to. Her career in IndyCar may have stalled, but her profile is as high as ever. Moving to stock cars will only increase her visibility, and it will be a TV bonanza for NASCAR as well.

In 2012, that will be enough. Maybe in 2013, too. But eventually, inevitably, Patrick is going to have to deliver on her renown.

That has never really been a huge issue in IndyCar because the sport flies so far below the radar. Middle America may know Patrick from her 10 sponsorship deals, but it doesn't pay much attention to her career beyond the Indianapolis 500 or the occasional headline.

It may not realize that Patrick, 29, has been something of an underachiever since arriving in 2005. Consider, for a moment, that she is one of a small group of drivers who have started 100 or more IndyCar races since that rookie season of hers.

Scott Dixon has started 112 races since then and won 22. Helio Castroneves has started 111 and won 13. Tony Kanaan has started 112 and won 10, and Dan Wheldon has started an even 100 and won 13.

Patrick has 111 starts and has won one.

That doesn't mean she isn't talented, and it doesn't mean she shouldn't have an opportunity to switch gears. It's just that her performance has never been commensurate with her popularity, and that distinction is sure to be more noticeable in NASCAR.

That's why it is a wise decision for Patrick to devote 2012 to the Nationwide series. Essentially the Triple A of NASCAR, the Nationwide series has shorter races at slower speeds and with fewer high-powered drivers.

It is worth noting that other open-wheel racers — Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya — have jumped directly into Sprint Cup in recent years and have had mostly disappointing results.

That Patrick is willing to start closer to the bottom is a sign of her commitment, her humility and her racing acumen. It is also a wise move politically. Instead of immediately eclipsing the profile of longtime Cup drivers, she is making an effort to pay some dues.

Patrick already has run 20 Nationwide races for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team the past two seasons and has four top-10 finishes, including a fourth place this year that was the highest ever for a woman in either a Nationwide or Sprint Cup event.

Yet Earnhardt, who knows about failing to live up to outlandish expectations, insinuated last week that Patrick still has much to learn about racing stock cars.

"Two or three years in the Nationwide series is a pretty decent amount, and that would be rushing it in my mind," Earnhardt told reporters. "The Cup cars are a real challenge."

Even so, Patrick is likely to compete in a handful of Sprint Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2012 with the expectation of going full time in 2013.

A handful of women have competed in NASCAR races over the years, but no woman has ever had a full-time Cup ride. That means, in some ways, there is even more at stake than the millions of dollars Patrick and NASCAR are expected to rake in.

Fair or not, Patrick is going to be judged harshly. Her profile is too high, her celebrity too engulfing, for her to be graded otherwise.

If, three years from now, she is running near the front of the pack, she will have done more for women in racing than any of the pioneers before her.

Unfortunately, the reverse will be true, too.

She cannot afford to be just one of the boys, so to speak. It is not just her gender, but her notoriety. With large paychecks and outsized attention comes higher standards.

If she is running 20th, there will be those who wonder why she isn't in the top 10. And if she's in the top 10, others will wonder why she isn't winning. She's coming to NASCAR with less experience and more attention than anyone before her.

Danica Patrick had better fasten her seat belt.

She is in the race of her life.

Danica Patrick by the numbers

111 Starts in IndyCar series.

1 Victory in IndyCar.

20 Top-five finishes in IndyCar.

$12 million Income in 2010, according to Forbes, third among female athletes.

20 Starts in NASCAR's Nationwide series (best finish is fourth).

Danica Patrick will be under bright spotlight in NASCAR 08/24/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 10:49pm]
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