Danica Patrick made it official this afternoon: The Go Daddy girl is coming to NASCAR on a full-time basis in 2012.
What will this mean for Danica, for NASCAR and for race fans? SB Nation's Jeff Gluck and Jay Pennell attempted to tackle that question and more below.
Q: Who benefits most from this move – Danica, NASCAR or the teams she's joining?
Gluck: Gotta be Danica. If you look at the Nationwide Series ratings for the races Danica has been in, there hasn't been any sort of significant change (aside from her first two races) and attendance hasn't noticeably increased. Of course there will be an initial bump in attention – particularly around the Daytona 500 next year – but NASCAR isn't going to suddenly regain its former popularity just because Danica is around. She's the one who is going to be raking in the money, the endorsements and the fame. NASCAR and her teams will benefit, but not as much as she will.
Pennell: I think it is a win, win, win situation for all parties involved. Obviously Danica is bringing in the dough and basking in the attention from this move, but both NASCAR and the teams she is joining will benefit as well. For NASCAR, perhaps the attendance will not see a marked increase, but this is yet another winning moment the sport can dangle over the head of American open-wheel racing. Instead of staying in the IndyCar ranks and perhaps competing on a weekly basis for wins, Danica – like others before her and perhaps some yet to come – have decided NASCAR is the No. 1 form of motorsports in America and the place to be. For the teams she joins, her presence brings the all-important sponsorship dollars that are more than hard to come by in a down economy as we are experiencing these days.
Q: Did Danica go about this process the "right" way?
Gluck: For the most part, yes. The announcement and the decision got dragged out, but there's understandably a lot of details and negotiations that go into these things. My one issue with her NASCAR arrival is she probably should have tried more of a Travis Pastrana plan with K&N races to start with and then jumped into Nationwide. It was kind of embarrassing when she didn't know how anything worked the first few races.
Pennell: I agree. Her decision to come to NASCAR was one that was widely speculated and long-rumored, but I think she handled things well behind the scenes and in the media. We cannot necessarily blame Danica for the media furor over her transition from IndyCar, as you said, those things take time – just ask Carl Edwards.
Q: What are your realistic expectations for how Danica will fare in Nationwide next year?
Gluck: Steve Wallace is eighth in points and has five top-10s so far this year – and Danica isn't nearly as good of a stock car driver as even Wallace is. Any full-time Nationwide driver on a well-funded team should finish in the top 10 in the standings (there aren't that many), so I expect her to be 10th in points with about a half-dozen top-10 finishes next season. She'll occasionally hit on the track where she can challenge for a top-five, but she won't win (unless it's fuel strategy) and she'll mostly run around 15th-20th all year.
Pennell: I think Jerry Baxter and a few others might argue your point about Steven Wallace, but that's another story. I was trying to explain this to a casual fan last night who said he did not expect much from her once she made the jump to full-time racing. I think once she commits herself 100 percent to NASCAR her attention and focus will lead to better results and marked improvement throughout the year.
I do not expect her to light the world on fire once the season starts, but once she develops that routine and rapport with the crew and gets accustomed to racing the same competitors week-in and week-out, I think she will start to move up the finishing order. I don't foresee her earning a victory in her first season – look how hard it is for Nationwide Series regulars like Jason Leffler, Justin Allgaier and others to win – but I would not rule out the possibility at Daytona or Talladega (using the draft) or a pit strategy call.
Q: And what about for her seven Sprint Cup races?
Gluck: Sprint Cup is a completely different story. I don't care what kind of equipment she has: Unless it's a restrictor-plate race or a fuel mileage race, there's no way she's going to finish in the top 30 in any race on her own merits next year. It's hard for any NASCAR Cup rookie to do well, let alone someone with as little experience as Danica. Does anyone realize that even start-and-park drivers could do better in Danica's Cup car next year?
Pennell: Two words: Sam Hornish. He is a much more accomplished driver in the open-wheel ranks and amounted to very little when he made the move to the Sprint Cup Series. Danica is in for a rude awakening if she believes she can jump into one of those cars and be competitive.
Question: Who will have more stories written about them leading into next year's Daytona 500 – Danica or Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
Gluck: Danica. The mainstream sports media is going to love this story and eat it up. ESPN is going to promote it everywhere. FOX will feature her on its Daytona 500 promos. There will be so much hype about Danica's Cup debut, you won't know anyone else is even in the race.
Pennell: Perhaps they will rename it the Danica 500.