<
>

With Danica, expect more guts than glitz

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Danica Patrick will not come to NASCAR to play, and/or to pose for the cameras. She will come to learn, and to work at it.

You may see a side of Danica the American public and media have never seen before: the grit, the grim determination, the work ethic, the ultra-thick skin that Bobby Rahal found in England when she was 16 and living all by herself across the Atlantic from her family … slugging it out in the "schooling formulas," banging wheels with wealthy male candidates for Formula One … fiercely enduring the insulting, demeaning coldness of British mechanics who "thought I should be at home cooking and cleaning the house" instead of racing, she once told me.

After what she went through across the pond in her teen years, there isn't a NASCAR mechanic, crew chief, driver or owner alive -- or even in NASCAR's rough-hewn past -- tough enough or mean enough or even chauvinistic enough to faze her.

But it won't be like that. NASCAR will make sure of it. NASCAR wants her in its ranks too badly, even in a learning role while she continues her Indy car career, which appears to be her plan.

"There is no doubt she would be a welcome addition to NASCAR," said Jim Hunter, the sanctioning body's vice president for corporate communications. "She has a certain celebrity status and a charisma that we haven't seen in a while."

Hunter is taking seriously the reports that she's headed to NASCAR next year, probably with Tony Stewart as her mentor.

"I think the fact that Danica has hooked up with Tony Stewart as sort of an adviser speaks to how serious she is," Hunter said. "And I don't think Tony would be saying the things he's saying if he didn't think she has a chance to make it."

"I know that she's serious about it," Stewart told reporters at Atlanta Motor Speedway the other day. "I know that's what she wants to do. She looked me in the eye and said, 'This is what I want to do -- it looks like fun, it looks like a lot of work, but it looks like fun.'"

But it will be fun only after, and if, she masters full-bodied cars. Her NASCAR learning curve "all but certainly" will begin next year, according to a source -- who I consider golden -- close to the situation.

Her plan, according to the source, is to keep racing full-time in IndyCar next year, but also to run a significant number of Nationwide races, with some Truck and ARCA events in the mix. She has no intention of making the leap to Cup until and unless she feels comfortable that she can be competitive at that level.

That's why she has sought out Stewart as a mentor and, very likely, business partner in NASCAR. He made the transition himself 11 years ago, along a very similar path -- running full Indy Racing League schedules in 1997 and '98, and increasing his NASCAR participation along the way.

Even in 22 starts in what was then the Busch Series in '98, Stewart didn't win. He had only five top-5 finishes. He truly was learning, rather than trying to make a splash.

Stewart "absolutely" expects her to take the humble, rather than the glitzy, path. "You have to learn before you get here," he said, meaning the Cup level.

With Stewart, Chevrolet appears to have the inside track on Danica. Brent Dewar, vice president of Chevrolet Global, said here on Saturday that "I'm intrigued to hear a little bit more about what her thoughts are," and "we'll probably talk at a future event at a future location."

Toyota racing chief Lee White, although he said his company doesn't recruit drivers and leaves that up to its teams, quickly added, "I'm really happy and impressed that she's engaged with Tony, because Tony has done it. And I think Tony will tell her how it is. Tony has made that transition and knows how hard it is."

There is no doubt she would be a welcome addition to NASCAR. She has a certain celebrity status and a charisma that we haven't seen in a while.

-- Jim Hunter

Even NASCAR's Drive for Diversity is paying attention, though the D4D deals mainly with entry-level minority and female drivers.

Danica would be a boon to D4D in its three goals, according to Max Siegel, whose marketing firm runs the diversity program for NASCAR. "One is to create awareness for what is happening with diversity efforts in the sport, two is to pique the interest of people who want to participate by letting them know you can actually do it, and third is to build a marketing platform for participants … so I think her doing that, if that's true, would help," he said.

"And I think it'll get people engaged who may not be engaged in the sport right now. That is really good.

"And, if she goes through the Tony Stewart learning curve, she couldn't learn from anybody better than that."

Most of the residual chauvinistic grousing, the she'll-never-make-it-here mentality that I've heard around NASCAR, is based on her merely fair-to-middlin' record in IndyCar, with only one race win in nearly five seasons. The thought is, if she can't make it big there, she can't even be respectable here.

But you're talking about entirely different types of cars here, so who is to say she won't find a whole new comfort level in heavier, full-bodied, front-engine cars? Some years ago, when Rahal first brought her home to the U.S. to race Formula Atlantic, Ford Motor Co. arranged a test with a then-NASCAR Busch team at Hickory, N.C., and the team was so impressed it wanted to sign her to a speculative deal before she chose the open-wheel route.

Ever since the Danica-to-NASCAR speculation began three years ago when her father, T.J., openly admitted he was urging her to make the transition, I've assured NASCAR people of this: Whichever level she comes to, she's likely to have feuds going with other drivers within weeks -- and not at all because she'll have a prima donna attitude, but because if they beat on her fenders, shove her around, she'll hit back. She won't take any bullying from them.

All in all, count on this: Danica Patrick's entry into NASCAR next year will be a lot less glitzy, and a lot more gutsy, than you might imagine.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.