Danica Patrick says no decision imminent
INDIANAPOLIS -- The irony wasn't lost on Danica Patrick. The IndyCar star was taking in replays of old Indianapolis 500 broadcasts on cable when a breaking news bulletin flashed on the bottom of the screen. She had tentatively agreed to a deal that makes her a full-time NASCAR driver next season.
It may eventually be true, she said, but not for a while.
"I feel very flattered [that] speculation about me makes 'SportsCenter.' I'm flattered when people care and they're curious," she said. "Maybe that's just how much people want to believe in something. But we're not there yet."
The timeline and the result remain fluid as her squadron of representatives continues to plumb opportunities and maximize her options for next season and beyond, either in IndyCars, where she will start the Indianapolis 500 for the seventh time Sunday, or in NASCAR, where she has raced part-time in the second-tier Nationwide Series for the past two seasons.
Whatever inclinations Patrick personally holds, she is holding them close. Her father and former agent, TJ, says he doesn't know. Her mother, Bev, says she doesn't want to know "until she's ready for the press release."
Michael Andretti, for whom Patrick has raced since 2007, said he is hopeful but has no timeline on her decision.
Izod, with a stake but without a say, is girding for business without one of the most marketable athletes in the world, and one of the clothing manufacturer's key reasons for signing on in 2009.
"You can't take any great athlete, or any great personality, out of a business or out of a sport and not make a dent," said Mike Kelly, Izod executive vice president of marketing. "She's a great personality with a great following. Her Q Score is off the charts."
But if she's off the grid, Kelly already has selected his new face of the series: 22-year-old second-year driver Simona de Silvestro. Her comeback from a practice crash to qualify 24th despite second-degree burns has become a media sensation. Kelly said, upon meeting her before the season, that de Silvestro "had all the talk of an athlete. There was no BS. She was out to deliver. She had proved herself in the sport. She won in Atlantics. I said, this one was one to watch. She wasn't out to sell watches. She is out to win.
"I'm not worried," he said. "Simona's got story. She's got momentum. I look at Simona, and I'm in love."
Patrick continues to assert that among the "about a million" factors in her decision, finding a team capable of winning is her prime motivation. Patrick has one win (in 2008) in 102 IndyCar starts, and she finished a career-best fifth in points in 2009. She's 16th in points after four races this season. Patrick has a top-5 and top-10 this season in the Nationwide Series, and posted the sanctioning body's highest finish by a female, fourth at Las Vegas, on March 5. Her performance in the Indianapolis 500 would not impact her decision, she said, and neither would money. But the preferences of sponsor GoDaddy.com will be important.
"It is a business, yes, but I've lived a great life so far," she said. "I don't have to make my decisions based on [money]. For me, my decisions are about where I will be the most happy, where I will have the best chance to win races, where I'll be enjoying my life the most. I think I learned from kind of a young age that when I'm happiest is when I'm performing my best. ''
Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been the scene of great happiness for Patrick, 29. She became a steam-rolling media sensation as a rookie in 2005 with each day at or near the top of the speed charts, then qualifying a gender-record fourth. She became the first female to lead the race, as late as Lap 193 of 200, but eventually finished fourth, also a milestone. She broke her own standard by finishing third in 2009, in an event she calls "the greatest race in the world."
In six Indianapolis 500 starts, Patrick has finished worse than eighth just once, when she was involved in an accident in 2008.
"You remember this event for the finishes and the really good moments, and I know that in an event like this where you can be so absolutely crushed when things don't go your way or go well, you can be completely elated when it does," she said. "So those are the memories I hang onto. I actually don't remember much about my races here that weren't great or special."
Maintaining some semblance of a personal life is also important to Patrick, and that may be more possible in NASCAR than perception suggests. Though NASCAR's Sprint Cup schedule contains 36 points races and the IndyCar just 17, drivers who have attempted both series dispel the notion that stock car careers are more arduous.
"That a misconception, I think," said two-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti, who switched series to race in Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series in 2008. "Whereas those guys race more than we do, and they certainly do a lot of appearances, we, as IndyCar drivers, finish our race on Sunday, we'll be in the gym Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and travel to the race Thursday. And if we don't race that week, we're in the gym five days a week, plus the appearances and all various sponsors.
"All of those [NASCAR] guys are constantly on their own airplanes, too. Most of these [IndyCar] guys are on commercial airplanes."
While Patrick doesn't expect to learn of her actual destination via TV news crawl, she said she is not invested in the daily business of speaking with NASCAR and IndyCar teams. Approaching the end of both her two-year deal with Andretti Autosport's IndyCar team and JR Motorsports' NASCAR Nationwide Series outfit, Patrick said she is open to "all options."
"It's just really wide open right now," she said. "Anything is possible, either series or both again."
That, she said, could include the mutual option she has with Andretti for a third year on the current deal.
"I am interested along the way," Patrick said, "but I do not reach out to get that information. And so sometimes things are happening, and I'm not always aware and I know my agents are always very aware of when I have races, especially big races like this, and when I'm getting in a race car because they know that's job No. 1. They understand, thankfully, that that is what fuels everything.
"This month all they do is tell me to go out there and do your job and win races and everything else will be fine. I'm involved and ultimately, if anything doesn't go right, it's my fault. I will be the one that has to figure it out. So I would say I'm 75 percent involved or maybe 50 percent involved sometimes."
Patrick lost a key member of her negotiating team when agent Mark Steinberg -- who had negotiated her competition contracts -- left sports representation firm IMG. Patrick said that Alan Zucker, who negotiates her endorsements, has taken over both roles. Steinberg's departure won't impede negotiations, she said, but "it's just going to be a business relationship that I'm going to have to sort out."
Tiger Woods reportedly is considering a break from the power firm because of Steinberg's departure.
"That's a situation I'm going to have to address," she said. "But I'm not going to address that until after Indy. I'm not sure what is going to happen there. I'm also represented by Alan Zucker, who is an agent there as well at IMG, and he's still there. I have a bit of a unique situation."
In many, many ways.