NASCAR strikes gold with Danica

Danica and NASCAR -- a marriage made in marketing heaven.

Whether Danica Patrick becomes successful in NASCAR is impossible to know. Frankly, it's a long shot.

And guess what? It doesn't matter.

Patrick isn't the magic pill to fix all that ails NASCAR, but she sure can relieve a few symptoms and buy some time to find the cure.

They are selling the sizzle, not the steak. At least for a while. Patrick's dip into the NASCAR waters is a shot in the arm that the sport needs.

"I'm finally ready," Patrick said at her news conference Tuesday in Phoenix. "The [NASCAR] schedule doesn't intimidate me as much as it used to. There were rumors a few years ago, and it was a thought. But I was not quite as prepared mentally as I am now.

"I've got a lot to learn, but I have good people around me. We're ready to go."

The economy took a toll on NASCAR in 2009. Attendance was down at most events. And Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's No. 1 star, was a complete nonfactor in the worst season of his career.

Now the two most recognizable names in American auto racing are paired, with Patrick driving a partial schedule for Earnhardt's JR Motorsports Nationwide Series team.

Earnhardt and Patrick are not the best drivers. They never will be. But that misses the point. These two drivers are the biggest names that draw the most attention.

Want proof? All you have to do is look at the headline news box on the ESPN.com NASCAR page.

Nine stories are listed. Two of those have four times as many comments about them as all the rest -- the ones about Patrick completing her NASCAR deal and Earnhardt being named the most popular driver for the seventh consecutive season.

Some of the people commenting below those stories are happy while others are angry, but none is indifferent.

So teaming Patrick and Earnhardt is NASCAR gold. Some people believe it's fool's gold. Patrick has one victory in five IndyCar seasons. Earnhardt hasn't won a race in more than two years.

That makes Patrick a flash in the pan for NASCAR and Earnhardt a never-was for his Cup career.

Again, whether those thoughts are true or false doesn't matter. NASCAR just became relevant to millions of people who couldn't have cared less about stock car racing two days ago.

Patrick is a national celebrity beyond racing. So is Earnhardt, although he won't be directly involved in Patrick's NASCAR effort. His sister, Kelley Earnhardt, who runs JR Motorsports, will handle most of it along with a legion of public relations reps.

But linking those names is a big deal.

"It obviously put us in a great spotlight," Kelley Earnhardt said. "They have a lot of similarities on how they connect and resonate with the fans. There are a lot of things you can do from a marketing standpoint."

Kelley said both her daughters -- ages 9 and 4 -- are Patrick fans, but not because they watch Indy car races. They see Danica in teen magazines and on Barbie doll displays.

Patrick is part of American pop culture. If you asked the first 10 people you saw on a street in Cleveland "Who is Danica Patrick?" I'm betting nine could tell you. Ask those same 10 people "Who is Jimmie Johnson?" I'm betting less than half could tell you.

It isn't fair. It's just fact.

And it doesn't get better than this for the Nationwide Series. A league that has become Cup Lite, a glorified practice session for Cup drivers, now becomes Patrick's testing ground for the events she enters.

It's all part of a master plan. She will make her stock car debut in the ARCA race at Daytona on Feb. 6, the day before she appears in two GoDaddy.com commercials during the Super Bowl.

GoDaddy.com CEO Bob Parsons is investing millions here, including the two-year deal to sponsor the No. 5 Cup car of Mark Martin. The plan is obvious. Martin drives two more years, then hands over the 5 car to Patrick in 2012.

"Just thinking about that makes my eyes twinkle," Parsons said Tuesday. "But we'll see how it goes and look at it when we get to that point."

If Patrick flops in Nationwide, that point never may arrive. If she is competitive, NASCAR will have a cash cow for years to come. If not, NASCAR got a giant jolt of electricity from Patrick's presence, however brief.

"I really like the wheel-to-wheel action," she said Tuesday. "I like the chess match out there. I'm going to be very respectful of the drivers, but the bumping looks good to me."

No doubt she's headed for a bumpy ride. But the real person in the hot seat is Tony Eury Jr., Patrick's crew chief in the No. 7 Chevy. Is Eury a glutton for punishment?

After three-plus years on the pit box as Earnhardt's crew chief, Eury now goes from one superstar to another, where high expectations and endless scrutiny are constant.

In the big picture, there are no losers, even if Patrick fails. She'd say goodbye to NASCAR in a couple of years and keep doing her thing in Indy cars, and life (a wealthy life) goes on.

By then, the economy will return to normal (hopefully), and NASCAR, with Patrick's boost, will get its groove back.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.