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2012 NASCAR Season Preview, Part IV: Danica Hype Versus Reality

Slowly, over a pristine beach, the sun rises and for 43 NASCAR lucky drivers at Daytona, a new opportunity dawns to add to the glorious history of the Great American Race. After a three-month hiatus, the Sprint Cup Series returns with its Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 to begin its new season by offering up the sport’s top-level prize … at 200-mph speeds, of course.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the start of a journey that takes us to Phoenix, New Hampshire and nearly two dozen American locales in between. As the 36-race season begins, along with its two exhibition shows Frontstretch will be there, stride for stride covering these drivers and their stories every step of the way. But as we awake from our winter hibernation, so will many of you, preoccupied with life elsewhere during a season where football, Christmas and anything but cars in circles takes center stage.

So let us get you revved up once again, your heart pumping and your brain thinking through the trials and tribulations of the NASCAR season to come. Welcome to Frontstretch season preview time, all week setting up not only the Sprint Cup season but reintroducing the return of all your favorite columnists, returning to the weekly coverage they all love.

Other 2012 Season Preview Articles
Part I: Crew Chief Silly Season
Part II: NASCAR’s Dwindling Car Count
Part III: The Future of the Busch Brothers

Today’s Season Preview Topic: Danica, Danica, Danica. The most overhyped Sprint Cup rookie in the history of the sport, a woman about to defy expectations, or … ?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: It’s oh-so-easy to write Danica off, throw her in the trash bin quicker than Gisele threw those Patriots receivers under the bus. But even if you think a fifth grader can run circles around her in a stock car, can you stop and consider her support system for a minute? Owner: Tony Stewart, three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion. Crew Chief in Cup: Greg Zipadelli, two-time Cup champ and pit box mastermind. Crew Chief in Nationwide: Tony Eury Jr., former Daytona 500 winner.

Most rookies would kill to have that support system, along with the millions GoDaddy.com will pay in a sport where money does equal speed. And remember … this “Tiger Woods-like” moment is playing out on a national scale, inside a sport many outsiders feel has never been diverse enough. It’s a grand experiment that will be given every possible chance to succeed.

Does that mean Patrick automatically gets over the hump? No, it doesn’t. But those mechanics have to count for something; otherwise, why did a half-dozen teams bend over backwards to sign Darian Grubb? I think Patrick does better than expected, snags a (gasp!) top-10 finish in Sprint Cup and has a solid Nationwide season (seventh in points, a handful of podium finishes) that preps her well for 2013.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: What expectations? Are there some masochists out there that expect her to compete for victories right out of the gate? She’s not expected to go out there and win this year in Sprint Cup. Instead, 2012 will be a learning experience in the No. 10 for Patrick and that’s to be expected. I’ve yet to talk with her one-to-one, but I’d argue that she’ll agree with that assessment.

In fact, I can’t foresee her having any chance to win outside of the Daytona 500 (don’t laugh, but she’s pretty good at drafting and on the final restart with a few laps to go, she’ll have a partner, guaranteed).

Also, I think Stewart was more hyped as a rook than Patrick; at least he was expected to win. So yeah, she’ll acquit well on track, considering those modest goals and that’s about it. If she gets a top-10 finish or two this year, I’d even say that she exceeded expectations, as there will be a couple of “throw her to the wolves” races on her schedule (Darlington, for example). What she needs to do is win a Nationwide race this year. I think she can pull that off somewhere, too.

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer & Cup Post-race Analyst: I fully expect Danica Patrick to live up to my expectations for her … because they are very, very low. She’ll attract an undue amount of attention based on her (very) limited success or talent. Simply put, Patrick is the Kim Kardashian of NASCAR, famous simply for being famous and taking her clothes off a lot.

Amy Henderson, Co-Managing Editor: I almost feel sorry for Patrick, a ridiculously overhyped rookie whose noteworthiness is largely attributed to her ability to pose in a bikini and not her racing talent. She’s not a bad driver, but a little perspective: when Dario Franchitti, who is a much more accomplished open-wheeler than Patrick (four championships, two Indianapolis 500 wins) decided to dip a toe in the NASCAR waters, he was barely a blip on the hype radar.

Ditto Sam Hornish Jr., who is also has multiple IndyCar titles and Indy 500 bragging rights. It’s got to be hard to know the hype isn’t about your talent as a driver, even though Patrick has the right attitude: she genuinely seems to want to learn to race NASCAR the right way and appears committed to improvement.

That can happen, and she will be a contender in certain Nationwide Series races this year, but she is the most overhyped driver in the history of the sport. Even a Nationwide title wouldn’t change that.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Co-Managing Editor: I have high hopes for Danica in the sport. While there hasn’t been a female driver in many years that has been able to compete well at the Cup level, Danica has aligned herself with a team that has the resources to provide her with excellent equipment. That, coupled with another season in the Nationwide Series where she has shown steady improvement can help her to make history.

There’s no doubt Danica has the talent and ability to succeed, and the slow-paced move to work her into the Cup Series is one of the best decisions that could have been made and will benefit her greatly.

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor & IndyCar Analyst: She’s a rookie with limited seat time in a stock car. She’ll perform just about how a rookie with limited seat time ought to. Very few “next great thing” overhyped drivers ever live up to the hype because no one could. She’s been gradually improving in a Nationwide car, but there is zero reason to expect her to defy any expectations of a rookie driver in Cup.

Mike Neff, Senior Writer & Short-Track Analyst: Defy expectations is probably a stretch, depending on whose expectations you listen to, but she’s going to notch a couple of top-15 finishes in Cup (the other eight will be 20th or worse, though). She’s going to end the year resembling most of the other rookies who ever come into the sport and don’t have the talent of Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt.

S.D. Grady, Senior Editor: Not dignifying this one with a response. When she earns the hype, I’ll say something.

Tony Lumbis, Business Reporter & Marketing Manager: Here’s a concept – Danica will be just a regular rookie, at least on the track. I think one has to look no further than her Nationwide experience to date to predict what she’ll do at the Sprint Cup level. It wasn’t always pretty during her initial campaign, as the No. 7 Chevy ended the race on the back of a wrecker several times, sandwiched in between many more subpar campaigns.

But her sophomore season showed noted improvement, including one top five and three top-10 finishes in 12 starts. Patrick is proving to be a quick study, and full-time experience in NASCAR will only help her cause. She will not light the world on fire, and I’m not even sure that she will be collecting championships like they’re going out of style.

At the same time, I do think that she will eventually win races, be competitive and make the sport a little more interesting in the process. The next Jeff Gordon? Probably not. But I don’t expect the next Casey Atwood, either.

Brett Poirier, Senior Writer: Patrick is most certainly the most over-hyped rookie in the history of the sport. Right now, she doesn’t belong in Sprint Cup. That might not be a true in a year or two. Let’s let her get the hang of this stock car thing for a little while before we make long-term judgments.

Danica faces an unbelievable amount of criticism for using her looks and popularity to climb the ranks so quickly, but at a time when top-tier teams such as Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway are downsizing and some talented drivers are out there looking for rides, Danica has landed rides with Stewart-Haas Racing and JR Motorsports with full sponsorship.

She’s proven herself to be a pretty smart business person to give herself these opportunities. Time will tell what she does with them.

John Potts, Senior Writer & Historical Columnist: Make no mistake about it, the girl can drive. Is she going to drive enough Cup races to qualify for the rookie title, and will they run her for Cup ROTY? She’s perfectly capable of winning a Nationwide race, probably on an intermediate track or a superspeedway, and she might get that done.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Danica may be a Sprint Cup rookie, but let’s not lose focus here; she is a Nationwide driver first. Sure, she’s going to make Cup attempts in the Daytona 500, Darlington, Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, Bristol, Atlanta, Chicagoland, Dover in September, Texas and Phoenix in November and one TBD (Brickyard 400 anyone?), but this woman’s main focus is as a full-time driver for JR Motorsports.

Her Sprint Cup starts with Stewart-Haas Racing are going to be in the No. 10 car, which presumably is a sticker-swapping affair between Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, who will be using the number to field Chevrolets for the equally beautiful David Reutimann for the other 26 races.

How will Danica fare? I believe she will run as well as the equipment and her experience will carry her. She is not the lead driver in a flagship car; rather, Patrick is a part-time rookie driving for a timeshare team that will be using Stewart-Haas and Hendrick equipment (they’ll switch to Tommy Baldwin/ECR engines with Reutimann). That translates into a top-20 finish in the Daytona 500, barring a wreck not of her doing.

The other races will likely be as impressive as most other partial schedule runs made by rookies in recent years: A smattering of finishes in the 20s, a couple of DNFs, and, well, that’s about it. But keep this in mind: that stat line would still be better than just about any other former IndyCar Series or Formula 1 driver who has ventured over to NASCAR in the last few years.

Mark Howell, Contributor: Patrick will run well, learn quickly and attract more sponsorship dollars than anyone since Gordon hit the big time two decades ago. She will bring young girls into NASCAR fandom, quite possibly their curious dads and/or brothers, and the media will always have a story whenever the No. 10 Chevy rolls off the hauler.

Her addition to the sport will hopefully pay off for Tommy Baldwin Racing in terms of support, via Stewart-Haas, and if she wins the Daytona 500 later this month, the earth will tip off its axis and nothing will ever be quite the same.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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