Patrick may join Montoya on stock-car circuit in 2007

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Her father attended Sunday's race and reportedly has had discussions with Roush Racing.

INDIANAPOLIS -- NASCAR could be getting a makeover next season.

With Juan Pablo Montoya, a Colombian, bringing an international flavor to American stock car racing, the circuit is now apparently considering another major move -- bringing America's top female driver, Danica Patrick, to the series.

"I feel like it says a lot about NASCAR's popularity if folks like Juan Pablo and Danica are coming," driver Carl Edwards said. "I think it's awesome."

The announcement of Montoya leaving Formula One to join NASCAR's Target Chip Ganassi team came at Sunday's race in Chicago. But even before nearly four dozen drivers arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for testing Monday, Montoya already was old news.

The Orlando Sentinel reported Patrick's father, T.J. Patrick, was having exploratory discussions with some NASCAR teams and attended Sunday's race as the guest of Roush Racing.

Roush team president Geoff Smith said the team gave Patrick's family members passes as a favor but had not had any serious discussions of adding Patrick to the team.

"If she's interested, all they have to do is pick up the phone," Smith said. "But they haven't picked up the phone."

That report fueled speculation on the first of three days of testing in Indy that Patrick, whose contract with Rahal Letterman Racing expires after this season, could be leaving the Indy Racing League for NASCAR.

Team spokesman, Brent Mauer, declined to comment on the report Monday but confirmed that the Rahal team has been discussing a contract extension with Patrick.

Patrick quickly emerged as an IRL fan favorite last season when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500. She finished fourth, the highest ever for a woman, and was named the race's rookie of the year in 2005.

This season, however, has not been as magical.

Rahal's team has struggled against the IRL's best teams, owned by Roger Penske and Ganassi, and Patrick's best finish of the season came on the road course at St. Petersburg, where she was sixth. Despite four top-10 finishes, Patrick has, at times, shown her frustration with her No. 16 car.

Would she be welcome in NASCAR?

Stock-car icon Richard Petty said in May that women had no business getting behind the wheel, but today's drivers seem more receptive to welcoming Patrick.

"That would be another huge one for sure," said veteran Mark Martin, a Roush driver. "I think it would be great, absolutely fantastic. She is definitely a major, major, major draw. It would be fantastic to see her getting involved at this stage in her career, which is in the early stages. It would give her enough time to really adapt to the cars and everything and make a go of it."

The transition from open-wheel cars to stock cars can be challenging, but it has been done successfully.

One notable driver who made the switch is Tony Stewart, who left the IRL for NASCAR in 1999. Since then he's won two Cup championships and last year's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

Martin believes Montoya's move and the rumors about Patrick are only the start.

He said Monday he expects a flurry of changes to be announced over the next four months, including several retired Nextel Cup drivers who may come out of retirement to drive and his possible return to the Cup series on a limited basis.

"I think the silly season in 2006 will be the craziest in NASCAR history," he said. "You can already see it with Juan Montoya coming, so it's going to be really interesting."

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