Should NASCAR give Danica Patrick a free pass to Daytona?

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger
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With the Indy Racing League firmly in her rear-view mirror, Danica Patrick is all set to make a full-time move to NASCAR in 2012. She’ll be running most of her races in the Nationwide series for Stewart-Hass Racing, but will still get 10 starts in the Sprint Cup, including a place in the field for the 2012 Daytona 500.

And that’s where things are getting a little sticky for Patrick. Normally, Patrick would have a tough time finding a place in the field owing to the fact that she didn’t run any Sprint Cup races last season (though she did acquit herself well in the limited number of starts she had on the Nationwide and ARCA circuits last year).

Using an arcane NASCAR rule, Patrick’s team has essentially bought a place on the starting grid from Tommy Baldwin Racing (TBR). Under NASCAR rules, every team that finished in the top 35 in the Sprint Cup last season is guaranteed a spot on the grid. And since TBR finished 33rd last season behind driver Dave Blaney, Patrick will get her first start in the Great American Race on February 26, barring accident or injury.

It’s all perfectly legal under NASCAR rules, and has been used before to get a driver into the Daytona 500. Steve Wallace, the son of NASCAR hero Rusty Wallace, got into the 500 last year using the same loophole and finished 20th.

But while that exemption might have flown under the radar, Patrick and her publicity machine isn’t getting a pass. While she was in IRL, she was easily the circuit’s most popular driver, and reportedly banks somewhere north of $10 million per year in endorsements. Over at The Sporting News, David Whitley wrote, “If she wants to prove she’s not just another pretty face, using a man’s hard work is no way to start.”

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.