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Patrick Keeps Options Open

Popular Indy driver says her priority is to win Indianapolis 500, but NASCAR's high profile piques her interest.

July 12, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Indy car driver Danica Patrick confirmed Tuesday that she would consider moving to NASCAR, but said it's more likely to happen later in her career, after she tries again to achieve her main goal: winning the Indianapolis 500.

"I do have some interest for [NASCAR], for sure," Patrick said in an interview during a visit to Los Angeles. "I would definitely have to consider it."

Asked whether her move from the Indy Racing League, where she became an instant sensation by almost winning the 500 as a rookie in 2005, could happen as early as next year, Patrick replied, "I wouldn't say it's that big of a chance for next year, but I'd say it's a fairly larger chance in the future."

Patrick, 24, became one of the most recognizable people in sports last year when she was the first woman to lead the Indy 500.

Her success launched "Danicamania," and she remains one of auto racing's most popular drivers, even though she has yet to win an IRL race.

On Sunday, her father and agent, T.J. Patrick, sparked a media frenzy when he told the Chicago Tribune and Orlando Sentinel that he had talked with some NASCAR Nextel Cup teams about his daughter while attending the Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.

Patrick is in the last year of her contract with Rahal Letterman Racing, the team owned by former Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal and late-night television host David Letterman. It's possible she will re-sign with Rahal Letterman but she also could jump to another IRL team.

Her father's NASCAR overtures took on added weight because they followed hard on the heels of the weekend announcement that Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya -- who did win the Indy 500, in 2000 -- announced his move to the Nextel Cup series next year.

The Colombian will drive the No. 42 Dodge being vacated by Casey Mears, who is moving to a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The car Montoya is to drive is owned by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

Montoya's transfer might start even sooner than next season. His Formula One team, McLaren Mercedes, said Tuesday that it was letting the driver leave that series immediately, replacing him with Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa. That might enable Montoya to join NASCAR later this year.

Patrick said she had not spoken to Rahal, her Indy car mentor, or Letterman about her interest in NASCAR, and that she had not talked directly with any NASCAR teams. Rahal Letterman spokesman Brent Maurer declined comment.

But Patrick said her father had received "a lot of positive feedback, a lot of positive comments" from some NASCAR teams, which she declined to identify.

"It's nothing super-specific as much as it is, 'We'd love to have you. You would be welcome. We'd be open to this,' " she said.

She also noted that, with her contract expiring, it's her father's job as her agent "to explore all options," and she said NASCAR's soaring popularity was one reason for her interest.

"I don't think anybody can fault me for that," she said. "It's good to get a feel from everybody [about] where you, as a driver, stand with them."

But Patrick said her first priority remained winning the Indy 500. "That is my passion, my love since I was a little girl," she said.

The Nextel Cup's 36-race schedule -- compared with the IRL's 14 races -- also gives her pause, Patrick said.

"If [NASCAR] was half the length, it would be a lot more appealing to me," she said. "It's a big, life-changing thing, and I'm pretty happy with my life."

Patrick, a native of Roscoe, Ill., said her parents mentioned that they were going to the Joliet race and she told them, " 'Yeah, cool, that's good.' That's really all I knew of it." Then she and her husband went on vacation last weekend.

Many of the current Cup drivers said they would welcome the arrival of the open-wheel racers.

"It would be great, absolutely fantastic," veteran Mark Martin told reporters Monday. Patrick "is definitely a major, major, major draw," he said.

Jeff Burton said Tuesday that Patrick's success "has not been at the level of, you know, Montoya's," but he added, "She's a good race car driver. Obviously she's talented.

"If she were to make the decision to come to NASCAR, I think she would have a major impact on the things going on in NASCAR. Any time that our sport and our type of racing, NASCAR racing, gets more attention, that's better for us."

Conversely, the IRL could suffer a major blow if Patrick migrated to NASCAR.

She arguably is the most popular driver in the IRL, whose attendance and television viewership have sagged in the decade since it split with the other major open-wheel circuit, the Champ Car World Series.

IRL spokesman John Griffin said the speculation about Patrick was "putting the horse before the cart," but he acknowledged that "she is certainly a huge asset for us right now."

Even if she left, the IRL still has "a strong group of teams and drivers" such as this year's Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr., and runner-up Marco Andretti, a third-generation driver "whose promotional capabilities have increased dramatically in the last 60 days," Griffin said.

In last year's Indy 500, Patrick was leading the race with only six laps remaining as more than 300,000 spectators stood and screamed, urging her on. But she ran low on fuel and finished fourth behind winner Dan Wheldon.

On her second try at this year's Indy 500 in May, Patrick ran a steady if unexciting race and finished eighth. Otherwise she has struggled in 2006, as has the rest of Rahal Letterman, which recently changed cars and is playing catch-up. She has yet to finish in the top five through the first eight races and is 12th in points.

There are two full-time female drivers in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck series, Erin Crocker and Kelly Sutton, and Deborah Renshaw ran a full Truck schedule last year.

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