Austin Dillon is having a phenomenal season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series by any standards. In 18 races, Dillon has completed every single lap. He has an astounding 14 top-10 finishes in those 18 races.
Dillon, it should be noted, is a rookie. A rookie! Before this year, he'd only driven 11 Nationwide races. And the dude is second in the point standings.
Amazing. Incredible. A worthy candidate to be in the Sprint Cup Series next year.
But guess what? He's not coming to Cup just yet. On Sunday, Dillon told ESPN's pre-race show he's planning to run another full-time Nationwide Series schedule in 2013 in addition to a partial Cup schedule.
If there was ever a young driver who seemed ready to immediately make the leap, it's Dillon. Yet instead of doing so, grandpa Richard Childress is holding Dillon back until he's truly in the best position to have a long and successful Cup career.
But while Dillon will run another full season in Nationwide before moving up the ladder, Danica Patrick is planning to ditch the junior circuit and race full time in the Sprint Cup Series next year.
That would be a tremendous mistake and cause major damage to Patrick's career.
Patrick is not ready to race full time in the Sprint Cup Series. Not even close. And though the decision is likely being driven by sponsors who want her competing on the biggest stage, someone who is thinking clearly needs to pull back on the reins and say, "Not yet."
In the same 18 races where rookie Dillon has excelled this season, Patrick and has one top-10 finish. One. Her average finish is 19.6 – worse than her 17.4 average in a partial schedule last year – and comes in a series which doesn't have a fully competitive field.
On Sunday, Patrick had high hopes at Chicagoland – a 1.5-mile oval like the ones which are her best tracks (she has three of her four career top-10s at such venues). But she finished 14th and was not competitive at any point throughout the day.
Dillon – the driver who is not moving up to Cup full time next season – finished sixth and was competitive all day.
Some will undoubtedly read this and say the Dillon/Patrick comparison is unfair. Dillon grew up driving stock cars, the theory goes, and so Patrick needs more time after coming over from open-wheel racing.
But if that's true, then that's exactly the reason why moving up to the Sprint Cup Series so quickly is a bad idea. Patrick will struggle to be competitive in any Cup race other than at Daytona and Talladega, and it's unlikely she'll crack the top 30 in points – even while driving Hendrick Motorsports equipment via Stewart-Haas Racing.
Inexperience is an excuse that might fly in the Nationwide Series, but it won't buy her much time in Sprint Cup. If Patrick repeatedly says "I'm still learning" to explain away her poor finishes, the logical response will be: "So why did you move up to Cup this soon?"
Though her NASCAR finishes haven't been good, Patrick mostly does a great job taking care of her equipment. She is a patient driver who avoids trouble and shows potential at times. But while that approach can generate top-15 finishes in Nationwide, it won't work in Cup. In order to succeed at the next level, Patrick needs to enhance her skill set before making the jump.
Even with Dillon's success, those guiding his career realized he needed another year of seasoning before moving up to Cup. Someone with influence over Patrick's career – Tony Stewart, perhaps – needs to do her the same favor.
Patrick appears to have a lot of pride and a competitive spirit. She cannot afford, then, to be an annual joke in Sprint Cup Series racing. Not only would it be a blow to her psyche, but being NASCAR's Anna Kournikova – an international celebrity who never wins – would devalue her brand and shorten her career dramatically.
To truly learn and grow as a driver – thus putting herself in position to succeed in the long term – Patrick must spend another year or two in the Nationwide Series while running a partial Sprint Cup Series schedule. If not, then it will be a mistake from which she will never recover.