Danica Patrick Joins NASCAR

Danica Patrick is giving NASCAR a shot after her successful career as an IRL driver. After 9th, 7th, 6th, and 5th place finishes in points respectively in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, she’s taking the Danica brand to stock car racing where she’ll have to work her way to the top much like professional baseball players do.

That’s right, Patrick isn’t going straight to NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series to compete against Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. No, she’ll start in the ARCA Series, known best for its copious wrecks and anonymity. From there, she’ll try to earn a license that will allow her to compete in the Nationwide Series – NASCAR’s Triple-A – beginning in February at Daytona.

If there’s big money to be made driving in NASCAR’s minor leagues, Patrick, who has reportedly signed with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team, will be the only one earning it. Her bonus – the one making it worth her while to abandon her comfort zone – won’t come until she makes it to the Cup Series, assuming she gets there, because the path from the IRL to Cup is littered with the road kill of her contemporaries.

Neither Sam Hornish Jr. nor Dario Franchitti – both Indy 500 winners, both better than Patrick – could or has managed any success in NASCAR. It took Juan Pablo Montoya, widely considered one of the premier drivers in the world and an Indy 500 winner as well, three seasons before he was competitive in the Cup Series and he’s yet to win on an oval.

Success in the Cup Series, if it ever comes, isn’t around the corner for Patrick. She’ll need at least a year in the minors – she’s expected to race a part-time Nationwide schedule in 2010 – though probably two before she’s ready for Cup. When she finally does get there, she’s looking at least three seasons before she’s even competitive, and that’s only if she follows the same learning curve as Montoya.

It’s not much different compared to the ladder that Carl Edwards and other NASCAR drivers faced when they first enter the family of NASCAR circutis. Carl first toiled the dirt tracks around his native Central Missouri in the mid 1990’s before joining a NASCAR series in 2000. It took Carl 3 years in the “low minors” before he made his debut in the truck series. It was an additional two years before Carl made his debut in the “Major League” series. See here for more information on Carl’s career.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes until Danica reaches the Sprint Cup series (assuming she makes it). Will she be moved along solely because of her skill behind the wheel, or will NASCAR move her along a bit more quickly because of the novelty effect and her looks?