- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- So Danica Patrick is going stock car racing.
That's not news. It's been clear for nearly two years that "America's Princess Of Speed" was eventually headed to NASCAR on a full-time basis, and now ESPN's Marty Smith has reported that the official announcement will come next week.
Danica's arrival in NASCAR seems to be taking longer than Brett Favre's exit from the NFL.
There is no surprise involved here; in fact, it's the worst-kept secret in motorsports. The only question was when, not if. And, like everything else in Patrick's career, it's been dictated more by marketing than by actual motor racing.
Let's be honest: Danica pretty much lost her interest and motivation in Indy cars when she took her first laps in a stock car at Daytona International Speedway in February 2010 -- and saw the long lines at her merchandise trailer, lines of people patiently waiting to spend their hard-earned dollars.
Not only has Patrick's talent as an Indy car driver peaked (pardon the pun -- Peak automotive products is one of her personal sponsors) but her marketability in the series has, as well.
She's no longer an open-wheel novelty act; she's part of the woodwork of the Izod IndyCar Series.
So when INDYCAR gets a makeover for 2012, perhaps it's only appropriate that it will do so without its most notorious driver from the past seven years.
Ever since that charmed run to fourth place in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, Patrick has served as the face of the IndyCar Series. And that's been a double-edged sword.
For a time, Danica delivered new fans to Indy car racing -- casual observers of motorsport who suddenly had a cute new face to cheer for.
But she also brought a tremendous amount of backlash, from the more successful, pedigreed drivers she stole attention from and also from a large group of fans who were disgusted by the level of adulation lavished upon someone who was generally a midfield runner.
The media certainly played their part. Desperate for storylines, they helped create "Danicamania," making her the lead story on every race weekend no matter whether she ran fourth in an Indy car or 40th in the Nationwide Series.
The television broadcasts in particular were Danica lovefests, leading some to question whether INDYCAR's low ratings were in fact exacerbated by TV's infatuation with Patrick.
It's been 40 months since Patrick claimed her sole IndyCar Series race win, yet she constantly remained the lead story, devaluing the accomplishments of genuinely great open-wheel drivers such as Dario Franchitti (15 wins and three series championships since 2007), Scott Dixon (12 wins and a title) and Will Power (10 wins and a growing reputation).
There is no question that Patrick is the most talented and successful female Indy car driver to date. She wasn't the trailblazer -- Janet Guthrie handled that role -- and she wasn't the IndyCar Series' first popular fan favorite. That was Sarah Fisher, who earned the first pole position for a female Indy car driver and backed it up with a trio of top-4 finishes.
But Patrick took Fisher's popularity to a startling new level, appealing to fans both male and female, young and old. She became a pop culture phenomenon.
Along the way, Danica changed. With a road racing background, her original career goal was Formula One. Once she realized that wasn't going to happen, she shifted her focus to the road racing-dominated CART-sanctioned Indy car series. But just when she was on the brink of breaking in, her car owner, Bobby Rahal, took his team to the all-oval Indy Racing League.
Patrick had competed in only a handful of oval races in Barber Dodge and Formula Atlantic, so it was a steep learning curve when she jumped to the IRL in 2005. But let's face it: Turning left twice a lap on an oval is pretty simple compared with road racing, where drivers face fast and slow left- and right-hand corners and are constantly accelerating, shifting and braking.
She found she was most competitive on foot-to-the-floor, fast ovals such as Indianapolis, where speed comes through finesse, not force. When the IndyCar Series began adding road races, Danica often struggled -- usually in qualifying, where lap times come from grabbing the car by the scruff of the neck and hustling it to the limit. Her race pace was generally decent enough, but her poor qualifying performances put her in a position where the Andretti Autosport team usually had to resort to unusual pit stop strategies to move her up the order.
So aside from the obvious reason to switch full time to NASCAR -- money! -- the opportunity to race on ovals 95 percent of the time plays right into Patrick's skill set. She's not a crasher and is gentle on her equipment, so she finishes races. And even if she doesn't ultimately have the pace to regularly run at the front in stock cars, the longer races will provide plenty of opportunities for freaky fuel strategies to lift her into decent results.
Not surprisingly, Patrick and her management are playing it coy about the NASCAR announcement reported to take place next week in Phoenix.
Patrick's Indy car team owner, Michael Andretti, said he is not aware of Danica's future plans, though he conceded to SI.com, "She's probably gone, but not definitely."
Patrick's personal assistant and media liaison, Haley Moore, added:
"There is nothing new to report regarding Marty's story."
INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard recognizes that his most popular driver has one foot out the door, but he doesn't appear terribly concerned.
"I wish her well," Bernard said. "We would love for her to stay, but my job is to build the IndyCar Series with the drivers that are here.
I'm very excited about the opportunity because I don't believe our ratings or our attendance will decrease without her."
Whether an announcement occurs next week, next month or early next year, the facts are there for all to see: Danica Patrick will be a full-time NASCAR driver in 2012.
And not too many people involved with Indy car racing are upset about it.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
Dear Danica: Thanks for the memories. Now don't let the door hit you on the way out. Sincerely, John Oreovicz.