HAMPTON, Ga. – With a new NASCAR season preparing to unfold on the Florida coast, many new storylines emerge as compelling elements to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series campaign.
Arguably the biggest hot-button topic throughout the sport is the arrival of Danica Patrick to the NASCAR ranks. The open-wheel veteran will compete full-time for the Nationwide Series championship with JR Motorsports after running part-time for the past two seasons. She will also begin to dip her toe into the ranks of the Sprint Cup Series by running 10 races for Stewart-Haas Racing.
In recent years, several open-wheel drivers have made the attempt to crossover into NASCAR, with little-to-no success. But Atlanta Motor Speedway President and General Manager Ed Clark thinks that Patrick is setup for success unlike many of those before her.
"Other than the time period that A.J. Foyt drove for the Wood Brothers, I don't know that there has been another person to come over from the Indy Car ranks to have the caliber of equipment for multiple events that she's going to have at JR Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing," Clark said. "She's got a great opportunity to set some new career marks that other people have not been able to do."
Aside from the equipment, Patrick will have the added benefit of being surrounded by quality people at Stewart-Haas, with veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli calling the shots on the No. 10 Chevrolet and team owner Tony Stewart offering valuable input during her journey. Patrick is also guaranteed a starting spot in the upcoming Daytona 500 due to a points-swap with Tommy Baldwin Racing, putting her in an atmosphere designed for success as she gets her Sprint Cup career started.
"She is just one element in one overall operation. Other than the pressure she's putting on herself, it'll be a stress-free qualifying situation where she can be comfortable and get it all out of the car week-in and week-out," Clark said.
While Sprint Cup racing will be a growing process with bumps along the way, Patrick has the chance to log some solid runs. While the impact on the competition will be seen on the track, Clark also thinks she will make an impact in the grandstands.
"You take her charisma and intensity and competitive nature and you throw in what she's been able to accomplish in Indy Cars, and it's quite a curiosity factor," Clark said. "People are going to want to pull for their favorite driver and see where they finish and then they'll want to see where Danica finishes. Anytime you have that kind of added interest, it's a big plus for the sport."
Patrick will make her Atlanta Motor Speedway debut this Labor Day weekend when she runs in both the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series races at the 1.54-mile facility. "To have her in both races is going to make the weekend pretty cool. I expect she'll adapt and do real well here," Clark added.