Why Not Danica in the Chase?

 

By Jerry Bonkowski

For TheRacingGuy.com

In a recent slideshow column I wrote for BleacherReport.com, I put forth the belief that Danica Patrick could potentially make the Chase for the Sprint Cup within three to five years.

The response from fans was quick and, oftentimes, brutal.

“Are you nuts?” “Are you smoking crack?” “Ha ha ha ha ha. That’s a good one.”

Trust me, some responses were much worse, but we’ll leave it at that.

But the fact remains, why can’t Danica make the Chase?

I know this comes as somewhat of a shock, coming from someone who once wrote Danica was nothing more than “flesh and flash” during her IndyCar days.

But I saw something in her during the 2012 season that has made me do a complete 180-degree turn in my belief of her abilities and her prospects for success in NASCAR.

Sure, she still makes mistakes – who can forget her attempt to wreck Landon Cassell, only to wreck herself instead – but Patrick’s learning curve has begun to accelerate in my mind.

During her Nationwide stint for JR Motorsports – two part-time seasons and a full-time campaign in 2012 – to me it seemed Patrick just wasn’t getting the equipment and leadership that a driver needs for success. That’s not to say JRM was a bad place for her; it just didn’t seem to be the right place.

But now that she’s with Stewart Haas Racing and about to embark upon her first full-time season in Sprint Cup, Patrick essentially has all the parts, pieces and people that she needs for stock car racing success.

She not only has Tony Stewart as both a boss and teammate, she has folks like crew chief Tony Gibson, as well as Greg Zipadelli, Matt Borland and Ryan Newman to lean upon for advice and guidance. Plus, with SHR being a satellite team of sorts for Hendrick Motorsports, Patrick also has top-of-the-line equipment. Sure, she still has to do the job behind the wheel, but it helps when you have an all-star team that’s got your back.

It probably would have been more in Patrick’s best interest to log one more season in Nationwide Series racing, but it is what it is. She has a high-dollar sponsor in GoDaddy.com that wants results, not to have her spend another year on NASCAR’s AAA level. It wants her in NASCAR’s major leagues, to not only illustrate what she can do, but also for the attention and notoriety she is bound to attract for both herself and her sponsor as a result.

In a way, you can draw a comparison between Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. When Junior first went to Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, the general consensus was that he finally had the equipment and organization behind him that he needed for success.

While things haven’t exactly worked out as Earnhardt, Rick Hendrick and others had hoped, he did make big strides during the 2012 season (except for the Chase, of course) and shows promise of coming out of the gate in 2013 with the potential of having an even better season.

All the elements for success are there for Junior, and it’s the same way with Patrick at SHR. Sure, she has a long learning curve still ahead of her, but if there’s one thing I have learned in over a quarter-century of covering racing, it’s that a driver who is surrounded by successful personnel in the organization tends to achieve success himself or herself more readily than with an organization that may not be quite as successful.

In other words, driving with Stewart and Newman (and Kevin Harvick starting in 2014) as her teammates, Patrick not only has role models to follow, their direct success has the potential to rub off on her. “If they can do it, I can do it,” I can imagine Patrick thinking to herself during the upcoming season.

I also mentioned in my column that I expect Patrick to finish the 2013 Sprint Cup season somewhere between 20th and 25th place. That’s not a heady expectation, but it’s realistic. And then in 2014, I can see her finishing somewhere around 15th, potentially setting up a run at the Chase in 2015 or 2016.

The going will not be easy for Patrick both on and off the track. She’s going to be involved in more than her share of incidents this upcoming season. She’s going to likely face some macho prejudice from opponents, to the point where she’s likely going to be picked upon by at least a few drivers.

But at the same time, that should strengthen Patrick’s resolve and further stoke her determination to succeed.

Could I be wrong about her making the Chase, let alone even coming close to making it over the next three to five years? Sure, I could, and if that happens I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong.

But regardless of the fact that she’s female, Patrick is a racer first and foremost. I increasingly noticed during her 2012 Nationwide season performance that while the wheels of progress moved slowly for her, they still moved nonetheless.

And now with SHR, she’s in a position to make some serious progress. Call it an acceleration of her learning curve. Granted, bringing Patrick onboard made business sense for Stewart and his organization, given the deep pockets of GoDaddy. But at the same time, Stewart would not bring in a driver to his organization unless he believed that driver could succeed.

He did so with Ryan Newman, he’s going to do so again with Harvick in 2014, and he’s doing so with Patrick in 2013. Who knows, she may even surprise us and win a race this season. If that happens, trust me, the Patrick talk will quickly not only ratchet up, it’ll also potentially change some naysayers to believers – or at the very least, cause them to give Patrick more of the benefit of doubt.

As she progresses, Patrick will take steps along the way. First is to get fully acclimated to the higher speeds and greater competitiveness of Sprint Cup racing. Second is to start performing better, which will come in time – and it could take more than three to five years. I mean, look at someone like Juan Pablo Montoya, like Patrick a fellow expatriate of the IndyCar ranks. He’s still struggling after six seasons in Cup.

One thing, however, must be kept in mind. Even if she does make the Chase in the next three to five years, Patrick isn’t necessarily a shoe-in to win the championship.

That’s a whole other set of steps to make. So for now, let Patrick focus just on getting to the Chase dance first. And then everything after that will be a bonus.

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