(by Chris Estrada foxsports.com 9-8-09)
It looks like the Danica Patrick saga is finally coming to an end.
Labor Day weekend is usually meant for relaxation, but when NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star Tony Stewart said Saturday that he could "pretty much guarantee" that Patrick would make the jump to stock cars, the racing world predictably exploded in a tizzy. Another report had a source saying that she would run both IndyCar and a mixture of NASCAR Nationwide, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and ARCA events in 2010.
So what does this mean for the IRL IndyCar Series? It's time to start laying down a plan for 2011, which is now being pegged as the year that Patrick could flip to NASCAR full-time. There's going to be a major void left behind when she leaves and it will take somebody with a lot of star power to fill it.
Unfortunately, star power isn't plentiful in the IRL, making it imperative that the league start working on raising the profile of a new batch of drivers that will replace the brand name that is Danica Patrick.
Who could step in? Here's a look at five drivers ready for their time in the limelight.
The obvious choice, of course, would be the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion. On the racing side, Castroneves is a contender at almost every racetrack and although he's never won a series championship, his perch at Team Penske means he's never too far away from that goal either. But really, it's about the story: Race car driver comes to America and wins two Indianapolis 500s, then nearly loses everything in a tax evasion case. He ends up beating the Feds and then goes on to triumph a third time at the Brickyard. On top of that, his magnetic personality and dancing prowess on television has helped him gain a solid fan base. As long as he continues to perform at a strong level, he can definitely become the standard-bearer for the series.
For those that have clamored for another American star, Rahal appears to be their guy. The 20-year-old's second season in IndyCar has netted him improved results, especially on the ovals. If he and his Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing team continue their upward trend, Rahal will be a force in the future and that's incredibly important for the series as it tries to build up its fan count stateside. He's a bit more down-to-earth than Castroneves, but since his last name still carries some weight in the racing world (his father Bobby won the 1986 Indy 500), that humility is going to be a positive rather than a negative. You won't count on Rahal for flash, but that's okay; as long as he eventually becomes a regular winner in the next few seasons, he'll be something for the IRL to crow about.
The son of Michael and grandson of Mario can still do big things for the IndyCar Series, but his progress has been hampered by Andretti Green Racing's descent over the last two seasons. His team hasn't been able to stand up to Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing lately and as such, the Big Three is now the Big Two. Andretti also hasn't come up with another win to follow up his first one back in 2006 at Infineon Raceway. But with his dad taking sole control of the current AGR in 2010 — team co-owners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree will go run the promotions side of the organization — he might benefit from a more streamlined operation in later years. Perhaps that will be the key in having his obvious talent make him a regular threat for wins and top-fives. In any case, he's risen to sixth in the standings, so he's getting some momentum built up for next year.
Staying with AGR, we have to bring up that team's de facto leader. Despite AGR's problems, Kanaan is still regarded as one of the best in the paddock and like his Brazilian compatriot Castroneves, he's also got a good personality on him. Beyond Danica, you're also most likely to see him on advertisements since he's backed by 7-Eleven, so visibility wouldn't be a problem for him. Kanaan's been part of the league's nucleus for a while now, so most race fans know him and what he's all about — which makes him a good choice for the league to push if they want to bust out of obscurity. Of course, AGR getting back up to snuff will only help his cause, as he'll likely be battling for a championship with that scenario.
How can you miss with a guy that goes by the handle of "Captain America" and kicks butt in a race car? Hildebrand has already clinched the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights crown, the IRL's developmental series, with one race to go in a year that has seen him win four times. All of those wins were on road and street courses, which make him even more valuable as the IndyCar Series goes towards those styles of tracks in 2010. If Patrick leaves, could Hildebrand slide in at AGR? Or will another team try to go after him? He truly proved himself as the class of the FIL field this season and deserves a shot in the pro level.