Danica Patrick's No. 7 days could be numbered
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Danica Patrick memorabilia will be plentiful at the garishly green-and-black merchandise trailer at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend. There will be shirts and hats and hoodies. But fewer pieces of Danicana for sale will bear her familiar orange No. 7. It, like her tenure with JR Motorsports, is dwindling.
Even though both camps are pleased with what they've done together, and even though Patrick hopes to race about 10 Nationwide events next season, the season-ending Nationwide Series race here Saturday could mark the official end of Patrick's tenure with the team. While JR Motorsports has shepherded her to the precipice of the Sprint Cup career she will begin full-time with Stewart-Haas Racing next season in the No. 10 Chevrolet, ultimately, differing business needs could split them.
And if they do, Richard Childress Racing might be her next Nationwide destination. Team vice president of competition Mike Dillon, father of drivers Austin and Ty, said the team has discussed with Patrick's representatives the possibility of fielding a program for her, either in conjunction with Ty's partial schedule in the No. 33 Chevrolet or in another car utilizing a research and development team as her crew.
"We would love to run Danica," he said. "We think we could do a lot with her. It looks like it would be eight to 10 races. We're talking back and forth about it. If we had the opportunity to do it and do it right, put her in a winning situation, we want to do it."
JR Motorsports wants to do it, too, but has to concentrate first on what it hopes is a two-car, full-time effort in Nationwide next season. Regan Smith is set in the No. 5 Chevrolet. Cole Whitt is moving to the No. 7, but JRM still has to help secure major funding. A third part-time No. 88 will be used for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s partial schedule, but he and Patrick would want some of the same races. Sponsor commitments also could conflict with some of the races Patrick hopes to enter, most likely at Daytona International Speedway, where she has led laps in four of her last five Nationwide races.
Tony Gibson, Patrick's crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing, wants Patrick to enter "about 10" Nationwide events, he said, "preferably mile-and-a-half stuff. Bristol is a good one to do as far as coming to a short track, do the tandem race, maybe a road course and then intermediate stuff."
Patrick's decision to sign with the Earnhardts in 2009 teamed two of the most recognizable and popular figures in North American sports, and paired the female driver with a kindred spirit in a rare female racing executive, Kelley Earnhardt-Miller.
"The goal we have for any driver at JR Motorsports is to be able to use this opportunity to propel themselves to the next level, and we certainly knew Danica had the talent and work ethic to be able to do that," Earnhardt-Miller said. "If you think about what she's learned about driving stock cars in just two short years, it's really quite remarkable."
Earnhardt Jr. and Patrick became acquainted enjoying the fruits of their fame, co-starring in Jay-Z's 2006 "Show Me What You Got" video driving sports cars through Monaco, and Earnhardt was one of her first calls of inquiry when she became interested in vetting NASCAR. Both Earnhardt and his cousin, Tony Eury Jr. -- Patrick's crew chief from her first test in 2009 through the first 26 races of this season -- were schooled in the tricky process of trying to be productive amid scrutiny and outside responsibility. Patrick seemed comfortable attempting to blend into the swirl surrounding NASCAR's most popular driver. Earnhardt told espnW.com that he admired Patrick for her ability to inspire young racers, like his nieces.
"Me and Danica have a pretty good relationship," he said. "I appreciate what she has done just because of how I've seen it affect my nieces, and I think what she brings to the sport, I see it firsthand and I appreciate her position and who she is as a role model."
Patrick and Stewart's relationship with Chevrolet -- the only brand of stock car she has ever raced -- and her team's desire to find a competitive organization seemingly would make Richard Childress Racing or Turner Motorsports desirable destinations.
Turner has been a frequent home for moonlighting Cup drivers, as Kasey Kahne (15 races), Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman (one each) split time with Brad Sweet in the No. 30 Chevrolet this season. The organization had three of the top six drivers in final points last season, and Justin Allgaier is currently sixth. Owner Steve Turner declined an interview request.
Elliott Sadler enters the final race of the Nationwide season second in points for Richard Childress Racing but has announced he will leave for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. Team owner Childress told ESPN.com in September that he had funding to run three Nationwide cars next season, one full-time with grandson Austin Dillon and another eight to 10 races with another grandson, Ty Dillon. The fit seemingly would be ideal if Patrick's preferred race schedule could be melded with Ty Dillon's. Mike Dillon said the team already has enough personnel to accommodate an extra car if needed and could initiate a program for Patrick as late as January.
"Right now we're just trying to figure out how we would do it," Dillon said. "Fortunately, we're blessed enough we have some choices. We want to make sure we can do it right."
Dillon said "just the excitement she brings to the sport" is one of the main reasons he is interested in signing Patrick.
"And she's been running good," he added. "She's been running in the top 10. She works hard. I think we could do good with it."