With Danica Patrick scheduled to kick off her NASCAR Sprint Cup season at the Daytona 500 later this month, there's been a lot of talk about whether the 29-year-old racer can make an impact among the good 'ol boys.
Patrick's seven-year stint in the IndyCar Series was more about hype than actual results. Sure, her 2008 victory at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan was perhaps one of the more memorable moments in U.S.-based open wheel racing in the past decade, but other than some impressive top-end finishes at the Indianapolis 500, Patrick's on-track promise hasn't lived up to her commercial appeal.
As a marketing tool, Patrick is arguably the best in the business -- and that's a valuable asset to any racing driver's career.
Most racing teams, whether they compete in NASCAR, IndyCar or Formula One, are constantly looking for ways to raise money through sponsorships. Patrick's marketability has certainly helped her career in this regard (you'll probably never see IndyCar stars Dario Franchitti or Will Power on a Super Bowl commercial), but she is approaching the point of her career when on-track results will need to weigh more than her marketing appeal.
Patrick will have to push her game to another level if she's going to defy the odds and be successful in the most prestigious stock car series on the planet. Recently, open-wheel stars making the jump to NASCAR have had mild to poor results. Sam Hornish Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya have had their moments, but others, including Franchitti, have seen their NASCAR careers go nowhere.
There's no doubt that Patrick is a competitive racer (and an inspiration to some, especially women who are breaking into the ranks of male-dominated auto racing), but until she wins races and becomes a Chase for the Cup contender, NASCAR fans need to rein in their expectations.
This season will be another learning year for Patrick. Hopefully, her team will stick by her and not give up on her if she struggles this season -- and that looks promising based on her ability to attract sponsors.
Still, until she can prove herself on track, she's simply the most visible driver on it.