When Danica talks, NASCAR reporters go gaga

Danica Patrick listens to a question at a news conference about the upcoming DRIVEFORCOPD 300...

Danica Patrick listens to a question at a news conference about the upcoming DRIVEFORCOPD 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race after a practice session at the Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, February 17, 2011. (REUTERS/Joe Skipper)

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:37 PM ET

DAYTONA — This past week at Daytona International Speedway there was a pair of NASCAR media events on at the same time, one featuring Jamie McMurray, the defending Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 champion and the other was with part-time Nationwide series driver Danica Patrick.

It was no contest.

An estimated 50 reporters and camera operators jostled just to get close to the five-foot-nothing, 100-pound Patrick — who had an average finish of 28th in her rookie Nationwide campaign — as she spoke about what she hopes to accomplish in this, her second season in the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.

Over at the McMurray event only eight media members showed up to interview the winner of NASCAR’s two most prestigious races in 2010.

That in a nutshell tells everything you need to know about why Patrick is the most sought after race car driver on this continent.

It has nothing to do with results, because if it did, the only way she’d get into Saturday’s NNS DRIVE4COPD 300 would be to buy a ticket.

But Patrick is much, much more that just a race car driver. She is a media machine, able to jump tall television trucks with a single bound and stop speeding tweets with a single brush back of her dark tresses.

In a word she is the “it girl” of racing.

To go along with that “it girl” tag that has propelled her into the stratosphere of her sport, Patrick also possesses an acute sense of herself.

Thursday, after her final NNS practice in preparation for Saturday’s race, she talked about the future and where she sees herself next season.

And it will be a watershed season as she becomes a pure free agent at the end of 2011 with both her IZOD INDYCAR contract with Andretti Autosport and her NASCAR deal with Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming to an end.

While on the one hand she loves the media spotlight that shines much brighter in NASCAR, she holds on to the dream she has nurtured since her first go kart win as a 10-year-old — to win the Indianapolis 500.

“I have always thought I would win the Indy 500,” she said. “While winning at Daytona would be great, an Indy 500 win is still my dream.”

How much longer she can keep her tiny, perfect feet in both camps, however, isn’t open to debate.

Almost to a person, racing experts agree she won’t reach whatever potential she has in either series until she picks one and sticks with it.

Right now, she is depending on her handlers at the giant IMG sports agency to sort out the offerers and when the wheat is separated from the chaff, present it to her.

“It’s always nice going into Christmas and the New Year knowing what you’re doing,” she said, indicating she is in no hurry to make any contract final. “I’m not involved in the early discussions — those things can get messy — but I’ll be involved when the final decision is made.”

And if she were to win the Indy 500 this coming May, would that affect her future?

“There’s a pretty bad track record of winning the Indy 500 and leaving, isn’t there?” she said, referring to two past Indy winners Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., who both failed to find a future in NASCAR after drinking the milk at Indianapolis.

If she’s looking for something to make her choice easier she needs only to look as far as her current NASCAR boss.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ready to sign her up immediately, dangling the possibility of a Sprint Cup ride as a carrot in the talks.

“(A Cup ride) is definitely something, if we’re given that opportunity to consider it, we’ll definitely consider that,” Earnhardt said. “She’s a lot of fun to be around and she brings a new energy to our company. I enjoyed last year a lot. I enjoy looking forward to working with her this year and seeing how much more she learns.”

It may seem almost laughable to think of Patrick in an 850 horsepower Cup car that is much harder to drive than a Nationwide car, but if she continues to attract the tens of millions of sponsorship dollars she does now, Hendrick Motorsports — where she would likely end up in a JRM car — would have no choice but to give her a top ride.

“If we can keep working with her it would be great,” Earnhardt said of the possibility of forming a JRM Cup team with Patrick at the controls. “If we are given the right opportunity with the right deal, we would have to consider it.”

As for Patrick — surprise — she agrees with her boss.

“I think it’s a darn good connection,” Patrick said of JRM/HMS. “As things unfold throughout the year and opportunities come along, I listen ... myself and the rest of the team will listen to everyone.

“But definitely at this point there is obviously a good relationship with GoDaddy and JR Motorsports and Dale Jr. Being associated with JR Motorsports is quite a positive thing.”

Sure sounds like a girl on her way to NASCAR full time.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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