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Danica Patrick stands by her car after qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Friday, Aug. 31, 2012, in Hampton, Ga. (Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)
Danica Patrick stands by her car after qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Friday, Aug. 31, 2012, in Hampton, Ga. (Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)

Motorsports

Danica Patrick not ready for prime time Add to ...

After a couple of weeks of upheaval at JR Motorsports (JRM), the NASCAR Nationwide team heads to the U.S. heartland with a new crew chief in Danica Patrick’s pit.

Former Red Bull Racing crew chief, Ryan Pemberton will call the shots for Patrick’s No. 7 GoDaddy.com car this weekend in Kentucky, taking over from Tony Eury Jr., who left the job suddenly this week.

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Pemberton will likely pull double duty for the rest of the season, after also replacing Tony Eury Sr. about two weeks ago, as the team’s competition director. Pemberton arrived from Tommy Baldwin Racing (TBR) where he was crew chief for the No. 36 Chevy driven by Dave Blaney.

The exit of Eury Sr. and Jr., who are the uncle and cousin respectively of team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., signals a massive change in direction. And with it comes pressure to deliver better results.

The Eurys are considered old school and it’s possible their style simply didn’t mesh with inexperienced drivers.

That fact may be the reason why Eury Sr. was pulled off the top of rookie Cole Whitt’s pit box after five races in 2012 and replaced as crew chief by Bruce Cook. Whitt is 21 and has one full season of NASCAR Camping World Trucks under his belt.

Then again, it’s also plausible that the team made some drastic changes after hearing an earful from Patrick’s sponsor Go Daddy, which may not be too pleased with its golden girl being mired in the mid-field most of the time.

And that’s a problem that won’t be solved in a few races which also points to a rough road ahead for Patrick and Go Daddy.

Although Eury Jr.’s suggestion that the team could fix its performance problems by bringing in a seasoned Cup driver likely didn’t earn him points with JRM management, it does offer a hint about how far he thinks Patrick has progressed on her stock car learning curve.

If putting a Cup driver in one of the team’s cars would bring instant results, it’s not a stretch to think that Patrick simply is not ready to take the next step up.

Although Patrick, 30, is a racing veteran, she has limited experience in stock cars after spending seven years in the IndyCar Series. She began testing the stock car waters in 2010, racing for JRM 13 times with a best finish of 19th.

Never afraid to use her gender to set herself apart from the rest of the IndyCar field, Patrick was its most popular driver every year she raced in the series. It continued as she moved to stock cars, as Patrick was dubbed “The Face of NASCAR” when she arrived this year to race full-time in Nationwide.

That aside, a quick scan of Patrick’s results in 2012 backs up the theory that she’s not ready for Cup. In 26 Nationwide starts this year, Patrick has no top-5 finishes, two top-10s and one pole. Her average finish is a lacklustre 20.5 in a field of 43 cars.

Things may go better for her this weekend at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway since she seems to do better on intermediate tracks. Her average result so far this season in seven starts at 1.5-mile ovals this season is 12th.

With seven races to go, Patrick is 11th in points and has an outside shot at ending the year in the top-10 overall. Going into Saturday’s Kentucky 300, Patrick is 16 points behind Brian Scott who holds down 10th spot. Drivers get 47 points for a win.

But battling hard to finish in the top-10 in NASCAR’s development series is not exactly the kind of performance that should vault a driver into the top-tier Sprint Cup.

Indeed, the best yardstick for any driver is looking at a teammate’s performance. And compared to Whitt’s numbers, she comes a distant second.

The Nationwide rookie has three top-5s, 10 top-10s, has an average finish of 14.7 and lies seventh in points, 150 ahead of his celebrated teammate.

That’s a gap of just more than three race wins over 26 starts.

Despite the mediocre results, Patrick remains on the fast track to NASCAR’s top tier, where she will run a full Sprint Cup season in 2013 with Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).

While Eury Jr. may be out of the picture at JRM, perhaps it’s time someone managing Patrick’s career listens to him.

Yes, it’s certainly possible that Patrick may prove her critics wrong, but the odds are that she will be in way over her head in Cup. She’ll be swimming in the deep end with the sharks and they’re all probably going to be really grumpy.

The most damming evidence against her heading to Cup next year comes from an unlikely source: 2012 Nationwide rookie of the year Austin Dillon. The 22-year-old has driven his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing (RCR) Chevy to one win, 13 top-5s and 20 top-10s in Nationwide this year. The grandson of Richard Childress is third overall in points, just 34 behind leader and defending Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who drives for Roush Fenway Racing, and nine behind his RCR teammate Elliot Sadler.

Dillon has been a title threat all year and easily a lock to be a star in Cup as well as a future champion.

But guess what? Dillon, who raced two full seasons in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series before moving to Nationwide, has already made it clear he intends to stay in the second tier for another year of seasoning.

There’s no doubt that Dillon is being polished to drive the iconic No. 3 car made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr. when he does make the leap to Cup, but grandpa Childress won’t be running him there in 2013.

With Stenhouse Jr. filling a Cup seat for Roush next year and Sadler leaving RCR after this season, Dillon will likely be the title favourite when the flag flies on the 2013 opener in Daytona. He’ll also spend the year paying his dues, something Cup drivers expect up-and-comers to do.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea for Patrick to stick around in Nationwide and pay hers too while she also learns a bit more about stock car racing. It won’t happen and she’ll be in Cup whether she’s ready or not.

And with SHR learning earlier this month that it will lose its Office Depot sponsorship at the end of the season, there’s no doubt Patrick’s GoDaddy.com bucks will come in extra handy.

Unfortunately, rushing her into Cup may be a situation of short-term gain for SHR and NASCAR, and long-term loss for Patrick and her legions of fans.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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