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NEWTON, Iowa -- A perfect storm for the IndyCar Series could result in its most successful driver moving to a new team in 2010, and provide the opportunity to keep the sport's most recognizable driver in the series.
Scott Dixon, who remains under contract with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, has been linked to a team owned by Gil de Ferran that is expected to join IndyCar next season after several years in the American Le Mans Series.
That would then open a seat that could be filled by Danica Patrick, whose contract with Andretti Green Racing expires this season. Patrick is represented by IMG, which is currently "gathering facts" on possibilities in both IndyCar and NASCAR.
Patrick and I had a lengthy conversation on the pit wall at Iowa Speedway on Saturday afternoon. She has not personally spoken to team owner Chip Ganassi about joining his IndyCar Series operation, but admitted that IMG officials have been in discussions with the IndyCar Series team owner who also owns a NASCAR Sprint Cup team.
Signing with Ganassi would give Patrick a chance to continue her IndyCar career while running in selected NASCAR races to determine if she wants to make a full-time move in the future.
"[IndyCar racing] is the type of racing that I love; this is the type of racing that I grew up with," Patrick said. "But I need to know what direction this series is heading and if it continues to grow, because NASCAR has a lot of fans and a lot of opportunities that any race driver would have to consider."
And while NASCAR has had issues with the economic downturn which has meant decreased attendance, lower television ratings and cutbacks from auto manufacturers General Motors and Dodge, Patrick believes the IndyCar Series would "love to have NASCAR's problems right now," because even in a reduced role, NASCAR is still the monster in American motorsports.
While AGR intends to make Patrick an offer to renew with the team, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing would be a serious contender in IndyCar by offering her a ride at a team that won the 2008 IndyCar Series title with Dixon behind the wheel.
Dixon's departure, however, would be a bit of a surprise, but the driver from New Zealand admits he has a tremendous amount of respect for de Ferran, who won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 when he was at Team Penske.
Of course, Dixon also emphasized that it would take a great opportunity to lure him away from Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.
If Dixon stays and Patrick signs to give Ganassi three drivers including Dario Franchitti, Dixon said he would have concerns about how well that would work.
"I've seen it where we have run three cars here and it didn't work out very well," Dixon said of 2005 when the team consisted of Darren Manning, Ryan Briscoe and Dixon. "I just turn up and drive my car. If they run more cars out of this team, I have no idea what is going on there."
For her part, Patrick remains open to any possibility and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing would certainly provide her with a chance to compete for more IndyCar wins and contend for a championship.
"It's going to have to be a really good option for me as a driver and as a brand to expand beyond, because I already drive for a great team," Patrick said. "So we'll just have to see."
And the team appears to consider her a viable contributor to the operation, both on the race track and through its sponsor, Target stores.
"Danica Patrick is one of the best IndyCar drivers on the face of the earth," said Mike Hull, the managing director of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. "She is a quality IndyCar race driver and the thing that bothers me the most is first of all she doesn't get credit for being one of the best American drivers that's runs IndyCars and that needs to be said.
"I would hope she would concentrate her efforts on winning an IndyCar championship, winning IndyCar races and the Indy 500 because really that is what open wheel racers wants to achieve in the world."
Hull has a close working relationship with Ganassi but indicated in the end, it will be the team owner's decision. Still, it is undeniable that Patrick would provide tremendous value to the team's sponsor.
"I think that goes without saying for any sponsor whether you are with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing or any other team in this garage area -- she provides value back to the sponsors," Hull said. "I'm a racing guy. I work for the race team. If a race driver wants to talk to me about racing I would love to do that. Danica and I have talked about racing and that is it. The conversations have not been serious in any other way. I believe she has what it takes -- the ability and the desire. She has the primary focus. She wants to be a race driver and she has the ability to carry that off. When you see that in somebody and you see the fact that all they want to do is make themselves better every day, those are very special qualities."
Patrick has hired IMG to help her negotiate her next contract. IMG is now controlled by former NASCAR executive George Pyne and there are some members of the IndyCar Series staff that believe Pyne wants to take her to NASCAR rather than stay with the IndyCar Series.
"I've spoken to him before, but I don't think anyone's trying to push me," Patrick said. "They really want to just know what my thoughts are and what I want to do. At this point, I just want to know what my options are. So that's the point at which we're at right now is just collecting data and figuring out what our options really are - who is really serious.
In Sunday's Iowa Corn Indy 250, Patrick led twice for 24 laps to lead her first laps of the season before finishing ninth after overcoming flat tires when she ran over debris from a first-lap crash.
Patrick remains fifth in IndyCar Series points, but now trails leader Ryan Briscoe by 52 points as the series heads to Richmond for Saturday night's short-track race.
That's also a track that hosts two NASCAR Sprint Cup races a year so that only adds to Patrick's contract saga. But the IndyCar starlet is open to advice from those who have tried it, including Franchitti, who won Sunday's IndyCar race.
"I got along great with Danica as a teammate at AGR; I don't know what she is going to do next year but if she wants to race for us I would have no problem with that," Franchitti said. "She came to a couple of Cup races last year because she and her husband live in Scottsdale, Arizona and they came to the Phoenix races. We talked about the tough points and she lived some of the tough points with me.
"She is well aware of the plusses and minuses but I would love to see her stay in the IndyCar Series. It would be cool if she was my teammate."
Patrick even asked me what she should do and I told her that she is this close to realizing her dream of winning an Indianapolis 500 and has shown steady improvement in every season she has been in the series to the point where she is contending for the IndyCar Series title.
To see the progress Patrick has made in five years of IndyCar racing is impressive. Given the same amount of time in NASCAR, she could show similar improvement but it remains a career gamble. And, is a team willing to have the patience to give her five years to perfect the craft?
These are all things that she must consider before signing her next contract. But with Chip Ganassi and Target as a viable option in IndyCar, Patrick could further the Danica Brand through Target while getting a ride that could ultimately win the Indy 500.