By DON COBLE
Morris News Service
Danica Patrick's fulltime move to NASCAR in 2012 has been expected for weeks. The reaction, however, was overwhelming, even by NASCAR's standards.
As expected, Patrick will drive the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports next year in the Nationwide Series. She also will make as many as 10 selected Sprint Cup Series starts for Stewart-Haas Racing.
What lured her away from the IRL IndyCar Series was a newfound passion for stock cars. She has maintained a part-time schedule in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports during the past two years while focusing on a full-time IndyCar schedule with Andretti Autosports. At some point in the past two seasons, NASCAR became her passion.
"I always just go where my heart tells me to go, where my gut tells me to go, where I'm enjoying my life the most and where I feel like I can have the most success," Patrick said. "I've truly enjoyed my experience in NASCAR to the point that I want to do it full time and I feel like in the last year I've really come around much more on the track and top 10s are happening much more frequently. I feel like I'm getting it more and more all the time."
The fallout has reached deep into both racing circuits. NASCAR chairman Brian France and IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard both issued statements. So did Fox Sports and a host of Sprint Cup Series drivers.
"We are pleased Danica Patrick has chosen to race full time in NASCAR in 2012," France said.
"She has demonstrated a strong desire to compete and NASCAR provides the best opportunity to race against the top drivers in the world with the largest and most loyal fan base in motorsports on a week-to-week basis. Danica has shown solid improvement in NASCAR and we believe her decision to run full time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, with additional races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, will be exciting for our fans and a great challenge for her."
Said Bernard: "Danica has always been a great ambassador for IndyCar, and there is no doubt she has left a positive impression on our sport. She has touched millions of fans and many that were new to motorsports. Danica attracted a fan base that every athlete and sports property in the world would love to have. We should give her a great farewell the rest of this season as she opens a new page in her career and wish her continued success with her new direction."
Two years ago many drivers expressed concern about Patrick's move to NASCAR. Since then, however, she apparently won them over, too, with her genuine interest in succeeding.
"The thing you see in Danica right away is how determined she is to be good at what she does," Stewart-Haas co-owner Tony Stewart said. "She's very dedicated to taking the time and effort to make the transition from IndyCars to stock cars. She has talent, she has the right mindset and she has the proper drive and determination. It doesn't matter who it is you're looking for, those are the key attributes that you look for in a driver, and Danica's got them."
Patrick said her Sprint Cup schedule hasn't been set, but her debut is likely to be the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.
She's also not sure if she will be able to compete in next year's Indianapolis 500, especially since there's so much more to learn in NASCAR.
"I feel more comfortable in the car," Patrick said. "I feel like I've gotten better on the short ovals, which I think is the one I need the most amount of work on and the mile-and-a-halves are coming around as well.
"It's a typical learning process that goes fast at the beginning and then I'm sure it will inevitably taper off and be a slow learning after that. I still haven't done a full season of Nationwide racing, so I'm still on very much that learning phase."
Former three-time series champion Darrell Waltrip, who now works as a commentator for Fox, is eager to watch Patrick evolve in her new surroundings.
"I've been waiting for Danica to make the commitment to NASCAR and now that she has, I believe she will surprise a lot of skeptics," he said.
Patrick has one career win in IndyCars. She has five races remaining in that series, including Sunday's Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.