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Danica Patrick announces NASCAR Nationwide Series plans

The IndyCar series driver will take part in a limited number of events in a car owned by JR Motorsports. Her arrival is expected to be a boon to NASCAR.

December 09, 2009|By Jim Peltz

It's official: Danica Patrick will take on NASCAR's good ol' boys.

Patrick, who became one of the most recognizable figures in sports as a driver of Indy-type race cars, announced Tuesday that she will also try her hand at NASCAR stock-car racing next season.

Patrick, 27, said she would drive a No. 7 Chevrolet in a "limited number" of races in NASCAR's Nationwide Series -- the second-tier race circuit below its premier Sprint Cup Series -- in a car owned by JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver.

"It's going to be challenging, but we're ready," Patrick said in Phoenix, where she lives. Referring to the months of speculation about whether she would try NASCAR, she added that "now it's time for the hard work. I'm very excited."

Patrick said the exact number of Nationwide races in which she will drive is not decided, but they will be mostly before and after the 17 races in the Izod IndyCar Series schedule next year, which runs from March 14 to Oct. 2. There are nine Nationwide races before and after the IndyCar schedule, including Feb. 20 and Oct. 9 races at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

As a stepping stone to her Nationwide debut, Patrick said she would start by driving in a race Feb. 6 in the lower-level ARCA stock-car series at the 2.5-mile, high-banked Daytona International Speedway in Florida.

Patrick's arrival in NASCAR, and the public curiosity surrounding how well she does in stock cars, would be a boon to NASCAR at a time when the sport's attendance and television ratings have been sagging.

She's well known not only for being a female driver in a male-dominated sport but also for her magazine layouts, edgy television commercials and modeling for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit editions.

"NASCAR welcomes Danica Patrick to stock-car racing and looks forward to watching her compete," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said.

It remains to be seen whether Patrick can eventually reach the Sprint Cup Series in which Earnhardt, the reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and NASCAR's other star drivers compete.

"It's going to be a challenge and I have a lot to learn. This is a great opportunity to learn as fast as possible," Patrick said.

Patrick said the IndyCar series remains her priority and that she still wants to win the Indianapolis 500.

However, she will be driving one of the best cars in the Nationwide Series, because JR Motorsports gets support from another of its co-owners, Rick Hendrick, owner of the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team, whose Cup drivers include Earnhardt and Johnson.

And her Nationwide crew chief will be Tony Eury Jr., who formerly was Earnhardt's crew chief.

But it's an open question how well Patrick will compete -- especially on a part-time basis -- in stock cars, which are far heavier and bulkier than the aerodynamic Indy cars.

Patrick soared to fame when she nearly won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2005. She did win the IndyCar race in Japan last year, becoming the first woman to win a major U.S.-sanctioned open-wheel event. But that's been her only victory in five years on the IndyCar circuit.

Hendrick said recently that "she's got talent," but other former IndyCar drivers -- including former Indianapolis 500 winners Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti -- that have made the transition to NASCAR in recent years have struggled to be successful.

In fact, when Montoya was asked in October about the possibility of Patrick driving part time in NASCAR, he said "I wouldn't be driving both cars" in NASCAR and the IndyCar series simultaneously because the difference in the cars was "going to be like night and day."

Even Earnhardt exemplifies the fierce competition in NASCAR, especially at the top level.

Despite having Hendrick's quality cars, Earnhardt hasn't won a Cup race since mid-2008, and Eury was released as his crew chief during the middle of this season because of Earnhardt's slump.

And when Patrick drives in Nationwide races, the field usually includes several veteran drivers from the Cup circuit, including Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch, who won this year's Nationwide championship.

But Kelley Earnhardt, Earnhardt's sister and JR Motorsports' general manager, said she was "very excited about [Patrick's] potential. She's got to get in there and get used to the cars, and hopefully everyone will remember that and not be so quick to judge."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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