By Jeff Olson, Special for USA TODAY
She insists her popularity isn't the only thing putting eyes on the Izod IndyCar Series, but there's no denying Danica Patrick has affected attendance and television ratings in a series desperate for both.
Now that Patrick has one race left in her seven-year IndyCar run before joining NASCAR full-time in 2012, officials and drivers wonder about her significance on a series stressed by low ratings and ticket sales.
They also wonder who, if anyone, will replace her.
The TV rating for the 2005 Indianapolis 500 was a 6.5 when Patrick, then a rookie, took the lead late in the race. The ratings in the series' premier race have steadily declined to a low of 3.6 in 2010, a year after her best 500 finish, possible evidence that Patrick's influence on ratings and attendance wasn't as substantial as once thought.
Patrick supports that theory, saying her departure won't hurt IndyCar, nor will her move to NASCAR dramatically boost its ratings or attendance.
"The IndyCar Series is not just me running around," she says. "If it was, it would be extremely boring. It takes personalities and story lines to maintain interest. NASCAR has been very successful without me. Just because I'm going there now doesn't mean it's going to succeed or fail because of me. The same goes for the IndyCar Series."
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard acknowledges Patrick's presence "was able to bring a different demographic, different than your purist or traditionalist," but thinks the series will survive without the driver who has one win in 115 races entering the Oct. 16 finale in Las Vegas.
"It helps NASCAR," Bernard says, "but it doesn't hurt us."
In fact, it might help some of the IndyCar's most successful drivers gain recognition.
"There was always that kind of disconnect with having Danica in the series," says two-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti, who is married to actress Ashley Judd and is best-positioned to replace Patrick as IndyCar's most marketable driver. "We had a bit of the same thing that NASCAR has with Dale Earnhardt Jr., in that the most popular driver in the series doesn't necessarily win races."
Most of IndyCar's races are shown on Versus, where race ratings hover around 0.5. The series has long been criticized for having a disjointed and incoherent marketing plan, relying on Patrick's fame to hold up sales and ratings.
Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves disagrees, saying. "The marketing side of IndyCar is well-planned, and we have enough drivers with personality to attract people. We won't be losing anything in terms of the number of people who watch our races."
Bernard thinks IndyCar needs to rely on its established stars to attract fans in the future.
"With one more win, Dario goes right alongside A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, Al Unser Sr. and Al Unser Jr as one of the greatest IndyCar racers of all-time," Bernard says. "At some point people are going to pay attention to how great this guy is."
As for Patrick's future? She says she would like to return to compete in "multiple" Indy 500s if her NASCAR schedule allows it and "if it's with a strong team."
"I feel like I've done well at Indy and have great memories from there," she says. "I'd like to continue that if possible." USA Today