Is Danica Staying or is Danica Leaving?
Now we have a new racing riddle to solve and this one is going to be very special because it involves Danica Patrick. On Tuesday we were treated with published reports that said she was moving to NASCAR full time next year and her management team, the highly reputable IMG, were finalizing all of the details.
However, the following day, Patrick issued a statement saying she had no idea where that information came from and called the reports "speculation."
Let the game begin.
Tuesday's report was initially released by "ESPN Dot Com", also highly reputable, and seemed to focus on five major points regarding Patrick's next move in her career:
1. Danica Patrick will compete full time in NASCAR's Nationwide Series in 2012.
2. She will also drive in a selected number of NASCAR Sprint Cup events next year.
3. She will move up to the Sprint Cup Series full time in 2013.
4. She will make a brief return to the Indy Racing League to compete in the 2012 Indy 500.
5. Her long time sponsor, Go Daddy Dot Com, will follow her to NASCAR.
The timing of this announcement seems to fit. Her Indy Racing League contract with Andretti Auto Sport, as well as her NASCAR Nationwide Series contract with J R Motorsports, expires at the end of this year.
However, on Wednesday, Patrick threw a major monkey wrench into machine when she denied any knowledge of her future racing plans being in place. In an interview with "SI Dot Com" she said "I'm watching TV and see it scroll across the bottom of the screen. I don't know where it came from but it's all speculation. Anybody can speculate that and write that. I don't know where it came from but there's no truth to it; it's just speculation."
Expressing her own form of speculation, she said she found it "curious about the timing of such a story coming out a few days before the Indy 500."
I have two basic problems with this denial. First, I've never had a second's hesitation in believing anything that I've seen or read from ESPN. They have a long standing reputation of cultivating sources and double checking the facts. I'm inclined to think that their report last Tuesday was spot on.
Secondly, this would not be the first time a major announcement was denied in order to protect the timing of the official announcement. The catalyst here would be Patrick's management team taking advantage of every marketing concept available that comes with a glitzy press conference.
If we're going to get accused of speculating, then that's all the reason we need to roll up our sleeves and do exactly that: speculate. It seems that our brand new racing mystery has one element that hasn't been addressed: what NASCAR team will Danica Patrick sign with?
The first, and rather obvious, choice is J R Motorsports, the NASCAR Nationwide Series team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr, that Patrick used to launch her NASCAR venture. That #7 Go Daddy Chevrolet has been Patrick's NASCAR learning curve since last year. The culmination of the hard worked peaked last March when Patrick finished fourth in the Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas.
J R Motorsports could easily cover Patrick's Nationwide Series needs next year, but what about the proposed Sprint Cup events? The answer to that question may lie in yet another high profile contract negotiation. In recent days we learned that team owner Rick Hendrick is very close to signing Dale Earnhardt Jr to a contract extension that will keep NASCAR's most popular driver in the Hendrick Sprint Cup racing stable for the next several years to come.
There has also been speculation that says one of the final negotiation points to this new contract involves Rick Hendrick's increased participation in J R Motorsports. Could that possibly mean that a small fleet of Hendrick built Cup cars could be delivered to Earnhardt's race shop? It makes sense when you think about it. Hendrick cannot sign Patrick to drive one of his Sprint Cup cars. That's due to the NASCAR mandated owner's cap that limits team ownership to four cars implemented just prior to the start of the 2010 season. Hendrick's four car Cup stable is full at the moment and will be for the next several years. But placing some Cup cars in Junior's shop would be rather easy.
There's also been some speculation regarding a liaison between Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart although the plans for the Nationwide Series could turn out to be a deal breaker. The owner/driver from Stewart-Haas Racing fully understands what it takes to complete the transition from Indy cars to NASCAR stock cars. He has been very generous in the past by discussing the process with Patrick and offering his advice.
Stewart has always maintained that he's wide open to expanding his operation from two cars to four under he right set of circumstances. While he hasn't conducted any formal contract talks with Patrick, he did say he would be interested in having her join Stewart-Haas if she would be willing to make the leap of faith to the Cup level. Stewart made it clear that he was not interested in fielding a Nationwide Series team.
We can stretch the Danica speculation one giant step further by including Joe Gibbs Racing in this mix. Their existing operation would be perfect for Patrick's transition because they already have one of the best Nationwide Series operations in place. Bringing Patrick to the Cup level would also be an easy accomplishment because Gibbs Racing currently has three teams with room for one more.
In the past team President J D Gibbs has said they would seriously consider expanding to a four car Cup operation under the right set of circumstances. A high profile driver like Danica Patrick, backed with Go Daddy dollars, would definitely be the right set of circumstances.
So there you have it racing fans. We have a new mystery to solve. I think it's going to be a lot of fun. I'm also wondering where I can purchase one of those really cool Sherlock Holmes hats.
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