The fans and media are already in hair-trigger mode, ready to proclaim each miniscule test session or race as a sign of Patrick's ultimate failure or success. It's impossible to completely overcome those expectations because of the huge amount of interest that follows her, but she has the benefit of driving for a top-flight race team with a long-term sponsor whose CEO is seemingly her biggest fan. Managing realistic expectations with a patient team and an equally supportive sponsor is the best thing she has going for her as she traverses a potentially rocky rookie campaign.
Patrick already has considerable experience with the hype and the hoopla outside the racecar, and she joins a team whose co-owner knows about being forever the eye of the hurricane. Her crew chief is experienced as well. Those factors can only be a steadying influence. The racing should be the first priority, and media opportunities should be tempered and measured by long-term goals.
Can Danica race a stock car? My hunch is... yes. Her aggressive driving talent and demeanor has been proven at every step from her early karting days through lonely times racing in England, then from Formula Atlantic into IndyCar. Why should the Nationwide Series be any different?
People like to use the examples of Dario Franchitti and Jacques Villeneuve as "proof" that successful open-wheel drivers can't drive the tin-tops, but both of those drivers had no sponsorship and were with lower-tier race teams. Both had a very limited chance to get acclimated to NASCAR and neither was given a reasonable chance for success. True, Sam Hornish, another IndyCar champion, has under-achieved with Penske, and his '09 season bounced between waves of recklessness and flashes of potential. But look at what several seasons of training has meant for Juan Pablo Montoya, who was unquestionably the most improved NASCAR driver of 2009. All four of those drivers had a better open wheel resume than Patrick, but none stepped into the level of equipment she'll have at her disposal.
She does have a few road blocks in her way. Running a partial schedule is not the best way to learn to race in the upper rungs of NASCAR. Having spent much of last season working with the talented but inexperienced motocrosser-turned-driver Ricky Carmichael, I can assure you that he could have benefitted greatly from a string of consecutive races rather than a race or two followed by a lengthy lay-off. This dilemma may be a detriment to her progress.
It's also unclear what kind of short-term on-track success she can expect when her main focus must be on the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. NASCAR is not a sport that rewards any half-assed attempt. She may be intensely motivated, but I've not heard the same steely conviction in her "NASCAR voice" that I hear when she describes her burning desire to win the Indianapolis 500. If she can bring that same desire to NASCAR, it will serve her well.
So, don't ask me if she'll succeed after she's raced at Daytona and Fontana. Don't ask me even after the 2010 season. Let's look at her at the end of 2012, when she may have to decide between a full-time stock car effort or IndyCar. Only then will we really begin to understand if Danica can be competitive in NASCAR.
I hope she becomes a big success, as it would be good for NASCAR and also increase the national profile of the IndyCar Series. But... patience, my friends, patience.