Danica's career going in reverse

Indy race car driver Danica Patrick meets the media to talk about Honda Indy race being held on...

Indy race car driver Danica Patrick meets the media to talk about Honda Indy race being held on Sunday, July 18 in Toronto. (Alex Urosevic/QMI Agency)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:05 AM ET

TORONTO – On paper, Danica Patrick's year in the Izod IndyCar Series has been, if not a disaster, then close to it.

The famous GoDaddy Girl has seen her IndyCar career go completely in the wrong direction after four consecutive seasons of improvement.

Since 2005, when she finished 12th overall, Patrick has proven that she is more than just a pretty face with a down-home personality and hip grandparents.

Patrick has steadily climbed the ladder, moving from ninth in 2006, to seventh, to sixth and, finally, to fifth last season.

She made a major breakthrough in 2008, becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar race when she captured the checkered flag at the Indy Japan 300, prompting team owner Michael Andretti to say that he was thrilled that "the monkey is finally off her back."

Though she has not won a race since, the Roscoe, Ill. native has continued to show that she was more than just a sideshow.

Last year, she earned a third at Indianapolis -- a record-high finish for a female driver in the race, as well as three other top-five finishes.

But now, Patrick finds herself speeding in the wrong direction.

Though she posted a second at the Texas Motor Speedway this season, her performances overall have been a disappointment, to the point where she is now ranked 11th on the circuit heading into this weekend's Honda Indy Toronto.

But there's an obvious reason for the setback.

Patrick is double-dipping, so to speak.

On top of the 17 Indy stops, she has also been racing on the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where she has struggled.

Her best NASCAR finish was 24th last Friday at the Chicagoland Speedway, and it has been a tremendously difficult transition.

In her first race in the Nationwide Series on Feb. 13, Patrick was involved in a 12-car accident, and finished 35th -- after starting 15th.

Patrick reiterated on Friday in a media conference at Exhibition Place that she will continue the two-circuit pursuit for at least one more season. The general feeling is that she'll join NASCAR full-time for 2012 and dump IndyCar altogether.

The bottom line is this: Patrick has earned far more outside of the track than any of her current IndyCar contemporaries, thanks to her numerous sponsorship deals, and that windfall would reach mega-heights if she ever became a top performer in NASCAR racing.

Sometimes being a woman is not such a disadvantage.

Still, she insists that adding NASCAR to her portfolio this year is about the experience, not about maximizing her earning potential, even though that may sound a little hard to believe.

"I'm enjoying the (NASCAR) experience. It's humbling, to say the least, but it's also really rewarding too -- when I finally get it and figure it out," she said.

"It's just something I wanted to experience, and I'm really enjoying it," Patrick added.

"There are a lot of really great people. The drivers are extremely generous with their advice and time. The cars are definitely more basic. You can ask a lot of an Indy car, you can ask it to turn and break and accelerate and do all kinds of things at once, but with the stock cars, it's a little more simple. There's a lot of passing, and passing's fun."

Open-wheel racing in North America has struggled in recent years while NASCAR has exploded, and Patrick has definitely noticed the difference in the crowds.

"It's the culture," she said. "Those people come and they have their trailers, campers and motor-homes and buses. It's a sea of camping. That's one of the biggest things I notice."

Patrick insists that she is not turning her back on Indy racing, pointing out that she still does as much as she can to publicize the series.

But one thing is certain, if she does leave Indy, it will be a major blow to the series, given her mainstream popularity.

Not many 11th-ranked IndyCar racers are asked to be presenters at the ESPY Awards. Patrick appreciates the notoriety, as do people in both NASCAR and Indy.

"I'm a lucky, lucky athlete and getting to do fun things ... (is) really fun," she said.

"When you sit in the front row (at the ESPYs) on Wednesday, right next to (Brett) Favre and Reggie Bush, it's a pretty decent night.

"Those are some of the lucky things I get to do."

And those are the things that the IndyCar people are going to miss.

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca


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