There's little doubt that all eyes will be on Danica Patrick next month when her first full season in the NASCAR Nationwide competition gets under way in Daytona, Fla.
With many convinced it's only a matter of time before the marketing machine ends up with a permanent seat in the top-tier Sprint Cup, Patrick doubters and supporters, as well as those attracted by the buzz, will be watching closely when the 33-race Nationwide season opens Feb. 25 at the Daytona International Speedway.
Against that backdrop of high expectations, countless detractors, and ever-present pressure to show she has what it takes to race in NASCAR, things promise to be a bit more intense for the former IndyCar media magnet now that JR Motorsport has announced rising star Cole Whitt as her Nationwide teammate in the No. 88 Chevy. Whitt will replace Aric Almirola, who will race the No. 43 car in Cup with Richard Petty Motorsports.
The team announced that Whitt would drive the team’s flagship 88 car last week with owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. saying he was lucky to have the talented youngster.
The 20-year-old from California is the real deal, finding success in everything he’s raced so far. Unsurprisingly, he seems to have a knack for stock car racing. His arrival should make things quite interesting, considering that all eyes will be on Patrick in JR Motorsport's No. 7 car, which should allow Whitt to work in relative obscurity as he finds his feet in Nationwide.
And that could be disastrous for Patrick, who stands to be humbled by her massively gifted young teammate.
A quick comparison of the pair's first three Nationwide starts hints that Whitt will be a tough teammate for her to match. In his trio of Nationwide races so far, the 20-year-old Californian crossed the line 15th twice and 17th in the third race for an average finish of just below 16th place. In his second-ever Nationwide start, he qualified in the top-10.
Patrick's first three Nationwide races were a bit less impressive. She crashed out of two, finishing 35th and 36th, and ended the third in 31st, three laps behind the leaders. Her average finish was 34th. In fact, Patrick needed 14 starts before she could manage a top-15 finish, something Whitt accomplished in his maiden start in Phoenix in 2010. And she needed 13 starts to qualify her car in the top-10.
It's also important to note that Whitt took to the Nationwide track with teams he barely knew and in programs that were thrown together at the last minute to give him some experience, while Patrick got to work with one of the series' top outfits from Day 1.
And Whitt now has a full season of Camping World Truck Series racing under his belt, which should only make him better in Nationwide. Last year, he raced the No. 60 Chevy in NASCAR’s truck series, finishing ninth overall with 11 top-10 results and an average finish of 14th in 25 starts.
Whitt was an instant sensation when he began racing karts in 2001, winning eight International Karting Federation championships and two World Karting Association grand national championships before moving to Sprint cars in 2006, where he was Hoosier Rookie of the Year. Two years later, he became the youngest driver to win the United States Auto Club (USAC) National Midget Championship.
He moved into stock cars in 2010, taking two poles and six top-5s in 10 starts and finishing fourth overall in points in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Series. That performance was rewarded with a pair of starts in the final two races of the 2010 Nationwide season.
There's no reason to think Whitt won't just keep getting better and be the top driver in the JR Motorsports stable this season. He’s also hungry and low-key, two things that may not apply to Patrick as she heads into a second career after seven years in IndyCar where she scored one win in 118 starts.
During her time in IndyCar, Patrick also graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition and spent plenty of time using her sex appeal to attract sponsors.
Over the years, Patrick has been seen in racy TV spots and glossy magazine ads in various states of undress and there’s no reason to believe that will end any time soon.
Adding to her numerous distractions will be the challenge of an eight-race schedule in the Sprint Cup Series after she signed a deal that will see her race part-time this year with Tony Stewart's team. Her Cup debut happens in the 54th Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.
Even if she were concentrating all of her attention on Nationwide, many feel Patrick would have her hands full trying to match Whitt's speed. And should the rising star leave Patrick to sniff his exhaust fumes early and often, it will be interesting to see NASCAR’s reaction.
Although the stock car series is easily the leader when it comes to just about everything in motorsport in North America, it is also banking on Patrick's sex appeal to help boost slumping ratings and ticket sales. Anyone who watched a Nationwide race with Patrick in the field may have noticed the commentators gushing over her as she battled for a top-20 finish.
There's also little doubt that NASCAR hopes that Patrick's entry into the series will bring 18- to 34-year-old males to their televisions, since she should appeal to this age group which has eluded the stock car series so far. With most of its fans at or nearing retirement age, NASCAR needs to get younger viewers watching before its core audience loses interest in their old age. Right now, just more than one-quarter of NASCAR fans are in the sponsors’ most coveted 18-34 demographic.
Obviously fans will never know, but if Whitt outclasses Patrick at every turn, NASCAR may quietly exert pressure on the JR Motorsport outfit to make sure it doesn't go on for too long.
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