NASCAR used to be rolling in cash, sponsors, and fans. It can boast none of that now. The sour economy has impacted NASCAR like no other major sport. Sponsors have been fading away quicker than the ink on Sarah Palin's hand. Fans? There's still a huge fan base but many fans have become bored with NASCAR, especially after the generic Car of Tomorrow has taken hold and fan favorite Dale Earnhart Jr. has struggled in the last few years.
Now comes Danica Patrick. How important is Patrick to NASCAR? Very. Just look at the ratings jump for Speed Network for Danica's ARCA race last Saturday--her first race in a stock car (she finished 6th). The ratings jumped 87% over last year. These numbers are out of sight and excellent news for a sport losing fans--especially the lukewarm fans that it needs to stay connected with the sport.
The big question is: will she be able to handle a stock car? At 5'2" and around 100 pounds, a stock car will be a beast to handle compared to the open wheel IndyCar she is used to driving. Also, much of NASCAR is about bumping and grinding--stuff that gets you killed in open wheel racing.
Yes, there will be challenges for her and success right away will be unlikely. However, she has the confidence, demeanor, and talent to run with the big boys. Although she's only won once in 81 starts since 2005, she finished fifth in points in 2009. I expect she'll make the jump to the Nextel series in 2011 and bring the best ratings to the Nationwide series ever.
Although the dinosaurs of NASCAR, fans and drivers alike, are likely rooting against her, those interested in seeing NASCAR flourish should be rooting for her because NASCAR's Danica moment could be the only compelling reason for many band wagon fans to jump back on the wagon and make NASCAR a profitable enterprise again. I know I'll be doing something this Saturday I haven't done in a long time: watching a Nationwide Series race. How Patrick handles Daytona International Speedway will certainly be on the minds of most. I think she'll do just fine.