Danica has positive momentum
Danica Patrick was surprised when Bobby Rahal decided to launch an IndyCar program for her in 2005. After two campaigns in the Champ Car developmental system, she was served a job in open-wheel racing's big leagues, for a three-time champion driver/owner whose team had won the Indianapolis 500 the year before with Buddy Rice.
Patrick, then 23, had finished sixth among 12 full-time drivers in the 2003 Atlantic Championship season and third of 10 the next year, and was arguably not ready for the promotion to one of IndyCar's stronger teams. But Rahal had the confidence and the funding, and Patrick had the desire.
Everything turned out pretty well for her. Patrick became a mainstream star in her rookie Indianapolis 500 with Rahal Letterman Racing and eventually moved on to Andretti Autosport, where she won her first career race in 2008. In 2010, she began moving on to NASCAR.
She created wealth and notoriety for herself, sponsors and teams in the process. That she didn't create an amount of victories commensurate with the attention she receives is something her critics must hash out on their own.
Last year, Tony Stewart, en route to winning his third Sprint Cup title as a driver, announced that Patrick would join the race team he owns full-time in 2013 for her first full season at NASCAR's highest level. And given the quality of resources surrounding her, things should turn out to be OK again.
Certainly, Patrick is lacking in experience and results in a rushed three-season stock car tutorial. Her mixed statistical performance speaks both to the difficulty of the complete change in regimens and the progress she is making.
In basically conducting her spring training drills during major league and Triple-A games since 2010, she already has produced the best race finish (fourth) and final points standing (10th) for a female, if her endeavor must be assessed in gender terms.
In comparison to contemporaries, her first three seasons have been better than those of Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., who had won a combined four IndyCar titles when they attempted to transition to NASCAR. Franchitti returned to IndyCar to win three more championships. Hornish persevered in NASCAR and was fourth in the Nationwide Series this year.
Whether Patrick is ready for Sprint Cup after just 58 Nationwide races, including one top-5 and seven top-10s, is debatable. Although some drivers have breezed through NASCAR's second-tier series with fewer starts to commence exemplary Sprint Cup careers -- Stewart and Kasey Kahne among them -- they are the exception.
Her Nationwide and Cup seasons ended with positive momentum. She improved throughout a 10-race partial Cup schedule, with her two best Cup finishes in her last two starts. So enthused was Cup crew chief Tony Gibson, he repeatedly texted Patrick his regrets that Homestead wasn't on their schedule this season.
Patrick is not depriving a developmental driver of a ride. She's not taking up space that wasn't specifically created for her. A high-powered sponsor wants to pay for it, and a savvy and successful driver/owner feels it's worth his time.
Time to get on with it.
Danica hasn't proved herself yet
Danica Patrick said it felt like the last day of school when she arrived at Homestead-Miami Speedway for her Nationwide Series finale. She didn't say whether she was graduating, or mention her report card.
So I will.
Instead of this being her senior year, and on to college -- or to the Sprint Cup Series, as it is in NASCAR -- it should be her junior year. She needs better grades before moving into the top series.
No bell curve here. Patrick gets a C-minus for her first Nationwide Series season and a D for her 10 races in the Cup series.
Before the season, I said there was no excuse for Patrick finishing worse than sixth in Nationwide with the top equipment JR Motorsports provides. She finished 10th and had an average finish of 18.8, actually worse than the 17.4 she posted a year earlier in 12 races.
She had no wins, no top-5s and only four top-10s. She led only 41 laps.
In her limited Cup schedule, her average finish was 28.3. No top-10s, no laps led.
If these were her SAT scores, she'd be told to explore junior college. If she didn't have a top sponsor in GoDaddy.com, she wouldn't even be considered for a top Cup ride.
Sorry to be harsh, but Patrick needs another full season in the second-tier series. She needs to prove she can at least compete for wins at that level before trying to go head to head with the big boys.
This has nothing to do with her being a woman. The former IndyCar darling has the potential to succeed if she doesn't rush things. This is all based on performance.
Regan Smith, in the same equipment, won his first race for JRM on Saturday. Patrick was 13th. And Smith wasn't considered good enough to keep his Cup ride for lower-tier Furniture Row Racing.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won his second straight Nationwide title, has proved he is ready to move up. Austin Dillon has proved he's ready to move up, though that won't happen until 2014.
Patrick has not.
She shouldn't be able to skip her senior year of high school simply because GoDaddy.com founder Bob Parsons has the money and pull to get her into a top college -- otherwise known as Stewart-Haas Racing.
I asked Richard Petty -- who some 40 years ago told a group of women from Queens College in Charlotte, N.C., that the garage was "no place for these girls" -- if Patrick was ready for Cup.
"Pass," The King said.
He was wrong about females not belonging. They do. But "pass" was the right word, although in a different context.
Patrick needs to pass the Nationwide test with another full season before she tries to contend with the Brad Keselowskis and Jimmie Johnsons -- even the Travis Kvapils and David Gillilands.
College will always be there.