In the last year NASCAR has made several changes to help cultivate a new generation of stock car enthusiasts – implementing double-file restarts, placing a rear spoiler back on its Sprint Cup car and allowing drivers more leeway in both on- and off-track disputes (the so-called “boys have at it” principle). And while these changes have been well-received, their impact on bringing new bodies to Phoenix International Raceway may pale in comparison to the stock car debut of Danica Patrick in the Valley of the Sun.
Patrick, the long-time IndyCar driver who makes her home in the Phoenix area, will race at PIR on Nov. 13 in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series. This weekend in Loudon, New Hampshire – after running eight consecutive IndyCar events – Patrick will compete in a stock car.
Jason Remmilard of The Republican in Massachusetts reported on “Danicamania” in New England this week: “Never before have ticket sales for a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway been this good.”
It seems safe to assume – especially considering her local ties – that Patrick’s presence at PIR could cause similar excitement from race fans old and new. And Patrick says she’s eager to race a stock car in her hometown.
“I look forward to going back to Phoenix – it's a place I thought was cool in an IndyCar,” she said. “It will be nice to sleep in my own bed. I'm excited for that. I think Phoenix is a great track. I think it's challenging, and I'm sure it will be even more challenging in a stock car with less grip.”
Despite all the excitement from fans, Patrick’s first three starts in a Nationwide Series car have been mediocre at best. In February, Patrick finished 35th at Daytona, 31st at Fontana and 36th at Las Vegas.
For her part, Patrick says the slow starts are part of a learning curve as she looks to manage expectations in the short term with an eye toward eventually holding a full-time ride in NASCAR.
“I didn't really set any expectation levels in the first few races that I did … and I think it would have paid off to do that – even in qualifying – set some expectation levels,” Patrick said. “So that takes some learning. To say, hey, look, qualifying in the top 20 and maybe finishing in the top 15 … that would be great.”
While she’s doing her best to manage on-track expectations, it seems there’s no way to control the fan hysteria surrounding Patrick’s move to America’s most popular auto racing scene. “Danicamania” has already taken off this weekend in New Hampshire and promises to blast off similarly in Phoenix this fall.
“I feel lucky that I have so many fans and I feel lucky that people follow me,” Patrick said. “I heard that ticket sales were up 30 percent or something like that at Loudon for the Nationwide race. I know that the ratings were up in the races I was in at the start of the year. That's great.”
Great for putting new bodies in grandstands and great for bringing new eyeballs to race broadcasts on TV. Great for NASCAR and perhaps great for Phoenix.