The NASCAR season opens for real this week, as Speedweeks hit a fever pitch at Daytona. The Sprint Cup drivers hit the track Thursday for the Duel races, which will determine the final starting grid for the Daytona 500 Sunday. They also serve as a last chance of sorts for the drivers who have yet to qualify for the race on speed.
(I'm not even going to try to lay the qualifying procedure out. Not sure I understand it myself. Click here for a primer.)
They are absolutely not the focal point of any media attention in Daytona. Instead, the Super Bowl of stock car racing is taking a backseat to the Go Daddy sideshow known as Danica Patrick.
With all due respect, Danica drove well in Saturday's ARCA series race at Daytona. She belongs in a stock car, and she will likely develop into a good NASCAR driver. In that respect, she is not a sideshow. None of what you're going to see at Daytona is a good thing. She isn't asking for the overwhelming attention she will get, and there's a good chance she'll be embarrassed by some of it.
However, the media has jumped on this like they jump on Brett Favre, Alex Rodriguez, and other needle-moving sports figures. They're all-in.
That means it will be a sideshow, unless Danica wins, which is extremely unlikely. That said, anything can happen in a plate race.
Patrick has announced she will run the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for JR Motorsports Saturday, as the NASCAR Nationwide Series kicks off its 2010 season at Daytona.
It's not a mistake because she's taking attention away from the race. She's going to do that in every race she runs. It's not a mistake because she appears to be -- at least for one race -- taking a ride away from Kelly Bires, who was signed to JR Motorsports to replace Brad Keselowski (now with Penske Racing). Bires was scheduled to run the full Nationwide schedule, but now will miss the first race because the other JR car is being run by team owner Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
It's a mistake because Danica doesn't need to expose herself to this spotlight so early in her stock-car racing career.
The season-opening race is a big deal for everyone, from drivers to crew members to media. Because it's such a big deal, a ton of Sprint Cup drivers will run the Nationwide race to maximize sponsor dollars for their owners.
The same kind of spotlight isn't on the Week 2 race at California. The entry list will be less cluttered with Sprint Cup names, and Patrick would have her chance to get her feet wet against competition less hungry for a win. It's more the kind of race she'll see in her other Nationwide Series starts, and it's a better race for her to start with.
Daytona, with its high banks, high speeds, and high tempers, is not a good place to give a rookie her first outing.
Perhaps she will drive the wheels off the car, impress everyone, and score a finish higher than anyone expects. But the potential for her to be involved -- directly or indirectly -- in the kinds of incidents she doesn't need to get into is too high.
For my taste, it's just too risky to send the rookie out for this race. JR Motorsports could have and should have convinced Patrick to wait for California to make her debut. There, she could have run a solid race, won the respect of her peers, and learned the give-and-take of stock-car racing at that level.
Instead, she's going right into the fire, and it isn't the kind of risk anyone should be taking.