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MATT CROSSMAN: Danica cares more about results than she gets credit for

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick

By Matt Crossman
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service

The smartest thing Danica Patrick has done in her move to NASCAR is take her time. She is expected to announce Thursday that she will race full time in the Nationwide Series next season, thus ending two years of speculation about what she will do with the rest of her racing career.

The announcement will not be a surprise because the NASCAR traveling circus leaks like a sieve. What is a surprise is how patient and methodical Patrick has been in making the decision. The most important trait a driver can have on the track is patience, and only the very best have enough of it.

The same is true off the track. In a sports world where 15 minutes ago might as well be 15 years, it takes uncommon diligence to not only wait for good opportunities but to not chase bad ones even when those bad ones are lucrative. But that's what Patrick has done.

She could have put herself up to the highest bidder to get in a Sprint Cup car two years ago and bypassed the three years of on-the-track training. All she would have had to do is ask, and would've sponsored her at the Cup level. Instead, she waited, running partial schedules the last two seasons in the Nationwide Series.

That's parts of two years in the minor leagues, plus a full one next year, all when she had a ticket to the big leagues. How many athletes would resist that temptation? Not many.

This is the same thing Andrew Luck did by returning to Stanford and Jared Sullinger did by returning to Ohio State. All three delayed big paydays to spend more time honing their crafts so that they could eventually be more successful. Patrick is often accused of being all style and no substance, but the way she has gone about her switch to NASCAR proves she cares more about results than she gets credit for.

What makes this more noteworthy is that before her NASCAR foray started, this is not how Patrick wanted it to go. She would have preferred to go straight to Cup-until everybody told her what a bad idea that was. I talked to her about this subject 2-1/2 years ago. I had already talked to team owners and presidents of every major Cup team about her. All of them would have hired her on the spot.

But every single one of them also said the only way for her to go Cup racing would be if she first went Nationwide racing.

That is a humbling demand, because a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series is a step down from a full-time ride in the IndyCar Series. Racecar drivers have egos, and the only thing they like less than not being ready for a particular series is being told they're not ready. I asked her then if she was willing to take a step backward.

"I can't tell you I'd be excited about it," she said. "When you go from one top-tier racing to not a top-tier racing, you've really got to think about that and evaluate your pros and cons. But I would be open to it."

That willingness to be open to it is the key. Many drivers are not. There's a long list of open-wheel stars who tried to go to the Sprint Cup Series too soon and failed miserably. Just in the last few years, Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti and Scott Speed have flamed out.

Two of the drivers Patrick is closest to - Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.-took the long way to the Cup series. Junior won two Nationwide titles, and Stewart insisted on running at that level before jumping to Cup. Both of them could have rushed to Cup. Neither did, and both are better off for waiting.

It's easy to recognize after the fact that a driver wasn't ready. Bent sheet metal proves it. It's hard for that driver to recognize before the fact that he or she isn't ready. But that's what Patrick has done. None of this is to say that because Patrick was patient in exploring her NASCAR options that she will be successful.

She could take all the time in the world and still hit everything and the flagstand, twice. At least she will have put herself in the best position to succeed.