NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Most of NASCAR is throwing out the welcome mat for Danica Patrick. Former driver-turned-TV analyst Kyle Petty is a bit more cautious about what her arrival means for the sport and the risks she’s taking.
“I’ve said it from the very beginning, she is an incredibly talented driver. Can this be huge for her and for NASCAR? Yes, it can,” Petty said Saturday. “Obviously, open wheel built what the sport it is now off of her because it was a floundering sport. They took her and that marketing machine that she is and they went there.”
Petty spoke at Sound and Speed, one of the events that marks the unofficial start of the racing season and features country music singers and NASCAR drivers mingling with fans from across the country. One of the bigger topics for 2010 is the arrival, at least on a part-time basis, of Patrick from open-wheel racing.
She’ll be driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the ARCA and Nationwide series before and after her commitments for the IndyCar Series are completed.
Petty, the son of NASCAR’s all-time wins leader Richard Petty, said Patrick is stepping into a situation with a car that has won races.
“If she gets in that car and doesn’t win races it’s not the car, it’s not the engines, it’s not the team. They only changed one thing. Initially, she’ll have an impact on the sport. If she’s successful, she’ll have a huge long-term impact on the sport.
“But if she’s not successful the only impact she’ll have on the sport is she wasted two or three years on a car that a good driver could have been in and could have been developing.”
He also noted the recent open-wheel drivers that have tried to make the jump to NASCAR and weren’t very successful.
“I think she can come here, but I look at (Dario) Franchitti, I look at Tony (Stewart) when he first came over from open wheel, I look at Juan (Pablo Montoya) and they are incredibly talented individuals,” Petty said. “Juan Montoya is probably, car control-wise, one of the most amazing human beings you’ve seen in a car and he struggled for three years at this level, and she’s not Juan Montoya.
“She’s not Dario Franchitti and she’s not Tony Stewart. She’s not really shown over there (in the Indy Racing League) and won races and done stuff over there numbers-wise. She’s just a marketing machine. Let’s look at the facts and be blunt about it.”
Earnhardt doesn’t know how his new employee will fare on the track, but he can’t wait to see.
“I’m going into it with an open mind. It’s going to be an uphill battle for her,” said the veteran Cup driver. “But I think she can. She’s a racecar driver. She should be able to adapt and do whatever she needs to do. We’re real happy with what we’ve seen and we love her attitude. I don’t know how she’ll do, I really don’t.”
Mike Bliss, currently driving on the Nationwide Series, thinks Patrick will be under a lot of stress to succeed.
“I think Danica is going to steal a lot of the thunder from all of us drivers till her first or second race. There’s a lot of emphasis on her,” Bliss said. “She’s somebody that everybody is going to be watching at Daytona. Thank God it’s her. The camera is going to be on her — a lot of pressure.”
Sprint Cup veteran Carl Edwards was hesitant at first, but thinks it’s a good thing for the sport bringing Patrick onboard.
“Honestly, at first I thought there’s no way,” Edwards said. “Then I heard just (Friday) my buddy was telling me at testing that she was really, really fast. You never know. What I’ve been saying from the beginning is for her to be successful over here would be a huge benefit not only for her and her sponsors, but for our whole sport, so it’d be great.
“I hope she does well, but not better than me. It’s going to be tough just like it is for everyone.”
The event benefits the Victory Junction Gang Camp, which was started by Kyle Petty and his wife Patti to help seriously ill children, and the Country Hall of Fame and Museum.