The last time we saw Danica Patrick on the stock car circuit, she was flashing that million-dollar smile after hopping out of her number 7 Chevy at Daytona on July 1. She had just finished 10th in the Nationwide Series race, but more significant, she had led laps (13 of the 100), displayed deftness behind the wheel and simply looked like she belonged in NASCAR.
Apparently she feels the same way. According to AP reports last week, Patrick was close to a deal with JR Motorsports, which is owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., to drive full time in the Nationwide Series in 2012, as well as pilot a Chevy in a handful of Sprint Cup races with Stewart-Haas Racing, beginning with the season-opening Daytona 500. This is a coup for NASCAR, which has been reeling from attendance woes and falling TV ratings for more than two years. It's also a gut punch to IndyCar, which had made Patrick the face of open-wheel racing ever since she finished fourth in the 2005 Indy 500. "NASCAR needs this," says one longtime NASCAR crew chief. "Is she ready for the Nationwide Series? Absolutely. She's proven that. But to be honest, no one really knows how she'll do in Cup."
Patrick's impending move wasn't the only driver news in NASCAR last week. On Aug. 4, Carl Edwards, who leads the Cup standings, revealed that he would remain at Roush Fenway Racing instead of moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, which had pursued the 31-year-old. Edwards, whose multiyear extension is believed to be one of the richest in the sport's history, made his decision after the heavies from Ford Racing, which provides support to Roush Fenway, intervened and sweetened the deal—something Ford had never done in its 47-year involvement in NASCAR.
Now that Edwards is signed, NASCAR's so-called Silly Season—when free-agent-to-be drivers seek rides for the following year—will heat up. The most intense speculation centers on Joey Logano. The 21-year-old has struggled in the Cup series, and his owner, Joe Gibbs, may be looking to replace him. Who would fill his seat in the Home Depot Toyota? Here's an educated guess: Brian Vickers, an A-list talent who currently drives for Red Bull Racing, which is leaving NASCAR at season's end.
So, even as the racing heats up on the track in the run to the Chase, there'll be plenty of jockeying in the garage as well.