Danica Patrick should have known better. Even without the rise of the blogosphere and the birth of the Twittersphere, she should have known better. She should have known that any pebble she drops in the proverbial pool of pseudo-information sends ripples through the matrix. But there was the 27-year-old IndyCar driver/sex symbol/media dynamo at an auto show in Toronto last month, ostensibly chatting with fans about who would portray her in a non-existent movie. She thought Angelina Jolie would work, but Jennifer Aniston, who was suggested by the fans, was too old. Cue the tsunami. "They went away and blogged it up or whatever," Patrick said, gesturing hands suggesting shock. "I was like, 'Really? Really?' … I've just got to be careful. You just have to be careful all the time."
Now maybe more than ever, if she really cares about causing a stir. Because with her long-awaited first Indy Racing League win secured last season at Motegi, Japan, her next great opportunity to make a splash comes with the wooing, courting and speculation about a new contract for 2010.
She says she wants to return to Andretti Green Racing. She joined the team in 2007 and it has helped her to seven of her 11 career top-fives and the best points finishes, seventh and sixth, respectively, the past two years, of her four-year career.
Team co-owner Michael Andretti wants her back.
She says she likes her job.
But founders of a new Charlotte-based Formula One team name-dropped her as a prospective driver in their first news conference last month.
They should call her, she said.
And then there is the all-consuming beast that is NASCAR, which has so far chewed up three-time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish and spit out 2007 champion Dario Franchitti, but is the gateway to far greater financial gain than open-wheel racing can muster — even for Patrick, one of the most marketable figures in sports.
"And it's an attractive beast," she said. "They obviously have a lot of drivers that enjoy it. I think it's all part of the things you have to evaluate. For me, what it always comes down to, though, and this isn't a lie: What are you worth? Where am I excited to be? Where do I want to be? I'm lucky enough so far that I've been able to be where I want to be."
Andretti said because much of the process depends on sponsors, there is no timetable to begin talks with Patrick, who signed in February with the IMG group that manages the marketing efforts of several NASCAR stars.
"It's a great team, a competitive team and good team, a fun team," she said of Andretti Green. "Working there is fun, if you can call it work, I guess."
Andretti said Patrick is more than just a marketing chip now. Though she has led just 21 laps in 47 races with AGR, she has become consistent, he said.
"We want her to win more races, and she's capable of winning more races and that's what we're going to try to do," he said. "I think she can be competitive for wins about anywhere now. I think her road course running is getting better. Our goal is to get her back to Victory Lane, and get her there more than once a year."
The IRL clearly wants her back, too, but doesn't need her back, an IRL official said. Her gender-best fourth place start and finish in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 launched a national media blitz that in many ways dwarfed that of race winner Dan Wheldon. Her win in Japan, which occurred in the middle of the night in North America and therefore out of the waking public eye, prompted another whirlwind tour.
"We absolutely want her to stay," IRL commercial division president Terry Angstadt said. "We think she's a great fit for IndyCar racing. The demographics, the women that follow her, we think it's a great fit."
Patrick's father and business manager, T.J., flirted with NASCAR teams before she left Rahal Letterman Racing for the IRL's largest team, four-car Andretti Green. He said the switch to IMG was made when her Motegi win yielded few new marketing opportunities.
Danica Patrick was the guest of Roush Fenway Racing at Phoenix, where she lives in the offseason. She knows NASCAR stars Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, has chatted about the sport with Tony Stewart in his motor coach and discussed the perks and peculiarities of NASCAR while driving through Monte Carlo with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Not in a Monte Carlo — in Monte Carlo, during a video shoot with rapper Jay-Z, after dinner with him and girlfriend Beyonce.
In short, Patrick is plugged in enough, she thinks, to make an informed decision.
To field a competitive IRL race car costs about $8 million — not counting driver salary — for a full season, and her ability to attract sponsors could help feed an entire open-wheel team. There would seemingly be a small group of IRL teams that could afford her, including AGR and Team Penske, but her allure to sponsors could make her attractive to others.
"I think she's in the right place," said Roger Penske, who owns teams in both the IRL and NASCAR. "She's a woman. She has great sponsor interest and the fans love her. You can hear it when she's introduced. Any place we go, there's a lot of folks that want to see her succeed. As long as she runs competitively I think she'll do fine.
"I have no idea what she can attract from a sponsorship, but I can tell you this, if I was Andretti Green I wouldn't let her go."
Former Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran, who said he will "start at the top of the list and work down" when he begins searching for drivers for his proposed IndyCar team, said Patrick will be a "serious contender" for championships "if she raises her game a little bit more."
Patrick will probably find that quote on the Internet. She has made it a habit recently to check herself on Google News. That's how she learned about the Aniston situation reverberating all the way from Ontario.
"These guys come up and they have their cameras and everybody has their cameras, right? So these guys are like, 'Oh, man, who would play you in a movie if you could have anyone?' " Patrick recalls. "And I'm like, 'Aww, I don't know. I've said it would be cool if it would be Angelina Jolie because she's hot and everybody loves her and she's beautiful, she's an action star and everything. And they were like, 'Oh, what about Jennifer Aniston?'
"Well, No. 1, she doesn't look like me. She doesn't have long dark hair. I have dark eyes. It's just not right. So I was like, 'Well, she's probably a little bit old.' … Angelina Jolie would be a little bit old, too, probably."
Wait. Sure you want to say that?