Ayello: A Danica Patrick return would be great for IndyCar Series

| September 13, 2017
INDIANAPOLIS — Before we begin debating her talent, potential landing spots or, most importantly, whether she’d ever consider it, let’s first acknowledge the obvious: A Danica Patrick return to the Verizon IndyCar Series, while unlikely, would be great for the series. Not good. Great. Despite a challenging 2017 NASCAR campaign, Patrick, who announced Tuesday that she will not be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018, is still one of the most recognizable names in motor sports, and she is undeniably one of the most polarizing athletes in the country. She also now appears to be a free agent, and IndyCar would be wise to explore a reunion. Danica Patrick readies for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 9. (Peter Casey, USA TODAY Sports) Warranted or not, debates surrounding her place on the track take place every week — in the stands, at bars and on social media. She is discussed more than most any other driver not named Dale Earnhardt Jr.  That means it does not matter whether you believe she is a talented driver or has been given more opportunities than she deserves. All you need to know is that because of her ability to drive debate, her return to IndyCar would be invigorating to a series that records weekly Nielsen TV ratings around 1.0 — the Indianapolis 500 notwithstanding. Week in and week out, thousands more fans would tune in to watch “The Return”  in order to, A) Root her on in proving her doubters wrong; or B) Cheer against her and proudly say, “I told you so,” if she fails. Either way, it’s a win for the series, which could use one right now as it negotiates new TV and title sponsorship deals. RELATED COVERAGE: Patrick will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 Analysis: What’s next for Danica Patrick? For at least a year, ratings would soar and IndyCar gets what it’s been saying it wants all along: A chance to show as many people as possible why it’s the world’s most competitive racing circuit.  Worst case scenario, Patrick is not competitive, and the boost is short-lived. After seven full seasons in IndyCar and five full seasons in NASCAR, it’s fair to say her star has faded some, and she might not be able to hold interest for long if she’s running in the back — as she has this season. But if she’s competitive when she returns, watch out. Ratings can soar when Patrick runs well. When she won the pole at Daytona in 2013, the 9.9 Nielsen rating was the highest it had been since 2008 and higher than it’s been since. When she qualified on the second row for the 2008 Indy 500, four years into her IndyCar career, the 4.6 was better than it’s been in the nine years since — including for the 100th running (3.9) and for Fernando Alonso-mania (3.4). A fast Patrick still brings attention to the track, and if there’s a way IndyCar can lure her back, the people in charge should do what they can to make it happen. So will it happen? Probably not. In an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2016, Patrick said, “I don’t ever see myself just racing IndyCar anymore” before adding that she’s unlikely to ever run the 500 again. However, similar sentiments were once expressed by Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti. While not on their level in terms of achievement, if Patrick wants to continue racing, IndyCar might be her best option. What’s more, it might be an ideal time for her to get back in the game. With IndyCar going to universal aero kits, everyone will be learning next year, so the disadvantage of being away for the past six years might not be so severe. Still, a reunion seems unlikely, mostly because it’s difficult to imagine how a return would benefit Patrick. For one, it would be tough to avoid the appearance of taking a step backward. It would look like she came from IndyCar, went to NASCAR and couldn’t hack it, and returned to IndyCar. That might not be exactly the way things unfolded, but it would be a tough perception to avoid. She’d likely have to be OK with taking a pretty steep pay cut, and she’d have to find a team where she believes she could be competitive. There’s no point in coming back if she’s going to be an also-ran, and it seems at this point, many of the best seats in the series are taken. Patrick has given no hints on what her future may hold, saying in a Facebook post announcing her departure from SHR that, “I have the utmost faith in myself and those around me, and feel confident about my future.”  Whether that future includes IndyCar, it’s safe to say the racing world, as always, will be watching.  Danica Patrick, born March 25, 1982, in Beloit, Wis., made her NASCAR Nationwide Series debut in 2010 and her Sprint Cup debut in 2012. Danica Patrick sits in her car during practice at Dover International Speedway on June 2, 2017. Patrick would go on to finish 10th in the AAA 400, for her first top-10 in more than two years. Danica Patrick received primary sponsorship from Nature’s Bakery in the 2016 season, but Stewart-Haas Racing sued the snack food company for more than $31 million in early 2017, claiming that Nature’s Bakery has reneged on payments. Danica Patrick climbs out of her burning race car after a crash with Matt Kenseth at Talladega Superspeedway on May 1, 2016. Patrick called it the worst crash of her career. Danica Patrick finished 16th at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016. Danica Patrick pits while qualifying for the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March. She started 18th. Danica Patrick flips the coin at the 2015 GoDaddy Bowl between the Arkansas State Red Wolves and the Toledo Rockets at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 4. Danica Patrick finished a Sprint Cup career-best 7th at the 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 10, 2014. Danica Patrick (10) became the first female driver to lead laps at Talladega Superspeedway during the Aaron’s 499 on May 4, 2014. Danica Patrick holds Kevin Harvick’s son Keelan before the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 4, 2014. Danica Patrick, left, and and country singer Trace Adkins hosted the American Country Awards at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas on Dec. 10, 2013. Danica Patrick (10), the first woman to start from a Cup pole, leads Jeff Gordon (24) to the green flag at the 2013 Daytona 500. By virtue of winning the pole, Danica Patrick got to pick the first pit stall for the 2013 Daytona 500. Danica Patrick waves to the crowd as she is introduced before the 2013 Daytona 500. Danica Patrick waves to her fans after making NASCAR history by becoming the first woman to win a Sprint Cup pole. Patrick qualified first for the 2013 Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. Danica Patrick poses with the pole winner sign after becoming the first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole position on Feb. 17, 2013. Danica Patrick is nothing but smiles as she addresses the media after winning the pole position for the 2013 Daytona 500. Danica Patrick was the eighth driver out on the track during qualifying for the 2013 Daytona 500. She posted a speed of 196.434 mph, which held up throughout the day. Danica Patrick prepares before heading out onto the track during qualifying for the 2013 Daytona 500. Danica Patrick walks from her hauler to her garage during practice for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2013. Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. went public with their romantic crelationship in early 2013 after rumors swirled about the fellow Sprint Cup rookies. Danica Patrick applies makeup before a television interview during NASCAR media day at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 14, 2013. Danica Patrick gets a hand from her crew as she prepares to take the track for qualifying practice for the 2013 Daytona 500. Danica Patrick has formed a tight bond with her team owner and fellow competitor Tony Stewart. In preparation for her first full season as a Sprint Cup driver, Danica Patrick speaks with the press during the NASCAR Media Tour on Jan. 21, 2013. Danica Patrick high-fives fans prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway. Danica Patrick (10) lands on top of Paul Menard during a crash on the final lap of the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Danica Patrick behind the wheel during practice for the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Danica Patrick is introduced before the AAA Texas 500 Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway. Patrick would go on to finish a career- and season-best 24th. Danica Patrick takes on tires and fuel during a pit stop at the Nov. 4 AAA Texas 500 Sprint Cup race. Patrick was one of 25 drivers to finish on the lead lap. Danica Patrick finished 24th at the AAA Texas 500 Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 4. Danica Patrick waves to the fans during driver introductions at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sept 2, 2012 in Hampton, Georgia. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick during qualifying for the AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Aug 31, 2012. Danica Patrick presents the award for Best Team onstage with NBA player Steve Nash at the 2012 ESPY Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A on July 11, 2012. Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, leads a group of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sept 30, 2012. Pat Summitt, left, head coach emeritus of the Tennessee women’s basketball team, greets Danica Patrick before the Food City 250 NASCAR Nationwide Series auto race on Friday, Aug. 24, 2012, in Bristol, Tenn. Summitt was the grand marshal of the race. Danica Patrick starts her car prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Aug 24, 2012 in Bristol, Tennessee. Danica Patrick sits down for an interview with Pardon the Interruption co-hosts Tony Kornheiser, left, and Michael Wilbon on Feb 21, 2012. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick crashes during the IRWIN Tools Night Race a Bristol Motor Speedway on Aug 25, 2012. Danica Patrick waves to fans during driver introductions prior to the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 26, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Danica Patrick waves before throwing out a ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs in Chicago, Sunday, July 1, 2012. Danica Patrick greets fans on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Dollar General 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct 12, 2012 in Charlotte, N.C. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick (left) leads a pack of cars during the AAA 400 at Dover Speedway on Sept 30, 2012. NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Danica Patrick (10) talks to the media during practice for the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 11, 2012. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick during practice for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 24, 2012. Danica Patrick during practice for the AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Aug. 31, 2012.

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