The IndyCar Series may be about to lose its most marketable quantity, Danica Patrick, to NASCAR.
JR Motorsports announced Tuesday that the 27-year-old will race in NASCAR's season-opening weekend, participating in the Automobile Racing Club of America event at Daytona in February. She will also drive in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series, although no dates were announced.
"It's been a long time coming," she said of her NASCAR deal. "I have always said I love to drive, and if I could make it work to race in both IndyCar and NASCAR with the right sponsor ... then I'd love to drive in NASCAR."
The news came just days after Patrick signed a two-year contract extension to race for the Andretti Autosport team along with an option for a third that may keep her in the IndyCar Series until the end of 2012.
As it stands now, Patrick's ability to get into the pages of swimsuit editions and provocative commercial appearances for sponsor Go Daddy remain one of the IndyCar Series' greatest assets. Losing her to NASCAR for good would be a huge blow to IndyCar in particular and open-wheel racing in general.
Perennially the series' most popular driver, Patrick's notoriety came more from being draped across a car's hood in a bikini rather than her performance in the driver's seat.
Despite driving for a top team for the past three years, Patrick has only one win in 81 IndyCar starts, after taking the checkered flag at the 2008 race in Motegi, Japan. In comparison, her teammates have had considerably more success. For example, Dario Franchitti won the 2007 title with four wins, including the Indy 500, before leaving the team at the end of the season.
But 2009 saw Patrick have a bit of a breakthrough year, delivering five top-5 results in 17 races and ending the season as the top-ranked Andretti driver in points. She finished fifth in the IndyCar Series driver standings with 393 points, 223 behind eventual champion Franchitti. Her teammate and 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan was sixth, seven points back of Patrick.
The 2005 IndyCar Rookie of the Year made a name for herself by coming close to winning the Indianapolis 500 in her first visit to the famed Brickyard. She ended her maiden race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in fourth; the best finish by a woman driver. She improved on that result this year, taking third.
And it was the lure of a win at the famed 2.5-mile Brickyard oval that ultimately kept her in the IndyCar Series.
"We evaluated our options mid-summer as to what was possible and the opportunities, but I really want to win the Indy 500, and I really like driving for Mike [Andretti] and I like my teammates," she said.
"The primary focus is IndyCar and the Indy 500, but in and around that, there's opportunity to drive the [stock]car, as well. It's not necessarily an event amount that I'm limited to, but the focus would be to run before and after the IndyCar season. That's the best opportunity."
With the NASCAR season starting a month before IndyCar's March season opener in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and ending a month after its October Homestead-Miami finale, Patrick has plenty of opportunity to try her hand at stock cars in 2010.
How she'll fare in NASCAR remains to be seen. The list of open-wheel drivers who have struggled in stock cars includes former Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve and two-time IndyCar title winner Franchitti, so success for Patrick is certainly not a given.
"There are a lot of people who have come over here and not been able to do well," said NASCAR star Carl Edwards.
But Patrick's charms might be just what NASCAR needs - its television ratings slipped this year, its track attendance dropped by about 15 per cent and a number of sponsors jumped ship.
Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon feels Patrick's move to stock cars will be a positive thing, although he warned that she'll face a steep learning curve.
"There could be a lot of excitement that could be built around it."