Patrick's NASCAR flirtation could drive up her IRL price

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July 17, 2006|By GIL LEBRETON | GIL LEBRETON,FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

To be somewhat politically incorrect about this, let me say that Danica Patrick would do OK no matter what she was driving.

An Indy car. A stock car. A minivan full of Cub Scouts.

And that's why she knew -- and certainly her dad, T.J., knew -- that it would make headlines last week when he said that his daughter was "thinking" about leaving the Indy Racing League for a ride on the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit.

Easy, boys. Just because the pretty girl winks at you, it doesn't mean that she's really interested.

In Patrick's case, she has a ride -- for now. But as everyone now knows, thanks again to dear old dad, her contract with Rahal Letterman Racing expires at the end of this IRL season.

Her driving skills -- still considerable and promising -- will be up for grabs, along with the rest of the package. The smile. The attitude. The magazine covers.

I can hear the NASCAR engines revving now.

But easy, boys.

"When I first heard that, I thought two things," said Eddie Gossage, general manager of Texas Motor Speedway. "I thought, `Wow, wouldn't that be great?'

"And I thought, `No way -- this is just a ploy to raise her price at the end of her contract.' And I have no problem with them doing that. You know, it's the American way."

For Patrick and the Rahal Letterman team, it has been a difficult four months. At the first race of the IRL season in Homestead, Fla., she qualified in the No. 3 spot. But when teammate Paul Dana was killed during a practice session, Patrick and fellow Rahal Letterman driver Buddy Rice immediately withdrew.

The team has struggled all spring and summer to find the right chassis, and Patrick has been finishing 12th, 15th, 11th -- providing fodder for her critics -- before a fourth-place finish Saturday night at Nashville.

Rahal Letterman, meanwhile, is stuck with an anxious driver and an uncertain chassis.

Gossage has a history lesson about this.

"If you look back at the history of pretty much any IndyCar team, it goes in cycles," the Texas Motor Speedway boss said. "Technology is so important in those cars, and it's a constant battle to stay on top of that technology.

"I was with Danny Sullivan in the mid-'80s, and we struggled as Chevy developed its IndyCar engine. All of a sudden, we were unbeatable."

Patrick doesn't seem like the kind who likes to wait. But in the Indy Racing League, her options are limited. There's the Roger Penske team, the Chip Ganassi team, Andretti Green ... and everyone else.

Juan Pablo Montoya went through the same thing in Formula One, where the options are even more limited. The 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner was released from his McLaren contract, and owner Ganassi announced last week that Montoya would drive for his team in the 2007 Nextel Cup season.

The question hovers: Can a woman, especially one who has yet to win an IndyCar race, successfully handle an American stock car?

Absolutely. A better question is this: Can a slightly built, 100-pound athlete, who is a woman, do it?

"For one thing," Gossage said, "the Nextel Cup cars weigh almost three times as much as an IndyCar. The kind of cars that she's been driving are small and lightweight, they're more technology-dependent, and the driving is very precise.

"In NASCAR, you sort of slide these big things around the track. You can't really compare the two. It's not like comparing apples and oranges. It's more like apples and sausages."

It's not a question of gender, Gossage said. Patrick's biggest adjustment would be her 100 pounds. That and, perhaps, the good ol' boys that she would be driving against.

Would somebody in NASCAR give Patrick a contract?

Are you kidding? Owners in NASCAR would let chimpanzees drive if they thought they could (a) win and (b) make more money. Ganassi certainly would.

And therein lies Patrick's contract leverage.

She's too smart to leave the IRL right now. If and when she wins a race, that might be another story. Patrick doesn't want to be the Anna Kournikova of auto racing.

So, gentlemen, start your contract negotiations. There's a lady that needs a faster set of wheels.

For now, though, Patrick is probably going to find them on the other side of the IRL garage.

Gil LeBreton writes for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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