KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Danica Patrick’s visit to the Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway two weeks ago was more about seeing friends than putting out feelers.
But aside from renewing ties with former Indy Racing League peers Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., Patrick’s Phoenix appearance as a guest of Roush Fenway Racing also could mark a step toward establishing new relationships in stock-car racing — perhaps with Jack Roush, who admitted officials from his powerhouse Cup team spoke to Patrick at Phoenix.
NASCAR still remains a possibility for Patrick in the wake of becoming the first woman to win a major-league open-wheel event.
“The door has never been shut,” she said Friday at Kansas Speedway. “I’ve learned too well over the last six to eight years, you can’t say anything is a never. Saying never is a very strong word, and if you do enough interviews and say that word, it really lives.”
Patrick, 26, had a brief flirtation with leaving Indy cars to race NASCAR in the summer of 2006 while in the final season of her contract with Rahal Letterman Racing.
She signed with Andretti Green Racing for the 2007 season in a multiyear deal whose terms weren’t disclosed. But SPEEDTV.com reported that Patrick’s primary sponsor, Motorola, signed a contract for 2007-09, and driver contracts often run concurrently with their sponsors.
That could put the IRL’s most popular star up for bidding again in 2010, and Patrick won’t rule out considering NASCAR again.
“Yes, I’m knee deep in Indy car,” she said. “But when your contract time comes, anyone would be foolish not to explore options that are relevant. You have to go where you feel you have the best chance to win and the most opportunities and where you feel your heart is.”
Patrick’s heart currently is firmly in the IRL, where she’s been the face of the series for three years since becoming the first female driver to lead the Indianapolis 500 in 2005.
Her victory in last Sunday’s Indy 300 at Twin Ring Motegi has prompted questions about whether she’s emerged as a championship contender (she’s 14 points behind leader Helio Castroneves). After Sunday’s Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas, where Patrick qualfied third Saturday behind the Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon, the circuit heads to Indy for a month.
Patrick, who hasn’t finished outside the top 10 at the 2.5-mile track, figures to remain the dominant story in May.
“I’m really happy in Indy car,” she said. “It’s going well, obviously, but you never know what’s going to happen in the future. Every contract has an expiration date, and you always need to assess what’s going on.
“I’m not looking for rides out there, but I’m also a racing fan and also have friends in NASCAR.”
That’s the primary reason she was in the pits at PIR, a track nearby her year-round home with husband Paul Hospenthal.
Hornish, a three-time IRL champion and 2006 Indy 500 winner who is in his rookie Cup season with Penske Racing, stayed at Patrick’s house during the NASCAR weekend at Phoenix.
Patrick also spent quality time with Franchitti, who is in his first season at Ganassi Racing after winning the IRL title and Indianapolis 500 last season as Patrick’s teammate at AGR.
“I really wanted to say hi to both of them because of all the people in Indy car, those were the two people I spent the most time with,” said Patrick, who has known Hornish since her teenage years in go-karts and befriended Franchitti while racing in Europe from 1998-2001. “It was sad to see them go.”
It’s probably been as difficult to watch Hornish and Franchitti during their debuts in NASCAR’s premier series. Hornish is ranked 33rd in points with two top-20 finishes. Franchitti is mired in 38th and hasn’t cracked the top 20, failing to qualify at Texas last month.
Patrick said she peppered Franchitti and Hornish with questions about NASCAR and is mindful of their struggles.
“I’m always asking people what (NASCAR) is like, just as a fellow racer,” she said. “There’s such perception but what’s the reality? You can’t ever know too much.
“I don’t know what their support system is like and their learning curve, but I know they said it’s hard, and I think that proves how hard it is.”
The most daunting element of NASCAR for Patrick, whose charisma and marketability brings enormous media and sponsor demands, likely would be a 36-race schedule that’s twice as long as the IRL’s
“We look at going to Japan, and it’s race three and they’re done with eight or nine already,” she said. “Just knowing how my schedule goes and to add on top of that 20 more races. That’s something that’s very much a lifestyle change and would take some adjusting.
Patrick tested a Ford for a now-defunct team in the Nationwide series several years ago, and she now is drawing interest from Ford’s top team owner in NASCAR.
In confirming Patrick as a guest of his team at Phoenix, Roush told reporters at Talladega Superspeedway on Friday that he could “lay out a program” to sell her on making the switch to NASCAR, which he said would need to be a staggered development and not a direct leap to Cup.
“It’s not clear that because she won an open-wheel race that it would be a straightforward thing for her to step into a stock car,” Roush said. “Quite to the contrary. I think she’d have to get comfortable with it.”
However, there are others, such as Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Burton, who believe Patrick’s win proves she has the talent.
“I was really impressed,” Burton said. “Every week when you watch the race she runs in the top 10.”
But he cautions success in Indy cars hasn’t translated historically into success in stock cars, which are twice as heavy and lack the precision braking and handling of an Indy car. Hornish and Franchitti are the latest on a long list of open-wheel crossovers who have attempted the switch with little success.
“It’s a harder transition than people think,” Burton said. “I’m not saying that we’re the best drivers. What I’m saying is it takes a different driving style to run well in these cars than it does in a high downforce, high-grip type of race car. I don’t know if she could do it. I don’t have a clue. I do believe that it would be a hard transition.
“These cars don’t make grip, and when you watch those (Indy cars) race, they’re great drivers but it’s a different type of racing. I’m not saying it’s worse. It is different and I don’t know that the same style works from that car to this car.”
Burton believes Patrick’s gender wouldn’t be a factor in tackling NASCAR’s marathon schedule, which also includes races that are as much as 200-300 miles longer than IRL events.
“There’s not one reason in the world that a woman driver cannot be successful in all forms of motorsports,” Burton said. “A woman can be successful, but it’s going to take a high talent level. You can’t be average. You’ve got to be really good.”
Patrick always has believed she’s good enough even if others don’t.
During her a New York media blitz this week, she was caught off guard by a question about whether her win was historic.
“I expect people to think that I can’t drive still because I’m different,” she said. “I’m in a boys sport, so you get the good old boys and people that aren’t open to change. You get people that don’t want to embrace it.”
Among the many questions Patrick said she didn’t field while barnstroming national talk shows was whether she still was interested in NASCAR.
“It’s a clue that IndyCar is definitely getting stronger,” she said. “It has for the last couple of years, but the things that have happened over the last six months have been the strongest yet.”
The recently unified IRL has ridden a wave of momentum this year.
In addition to absorbing rival series Champ Car and ending a bitter and confusing 14-year split, the circuit also has celebrated a Dancing With The Stars champion in Castroneves, its youngest winner (Graham Rahal, 19, triumphed at St. Petersburg) and the perpetual headlines generated by Patrick, who already had created a stir this year by appearing in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue a few weeks before the Japan win.
“I hope people make money off me and get sponsors because of what’s happened,” she said. “I hope good things come from it. It’s not like a solo effort of me and the race car. You’ve got teams and support from people and the league, these are things that have been there for years.
“I hope that everyone benefits from it.”