Ayello: A Danica Patrick return would be great for IndyCar Series – USA TODAY

INDIANAPOLIS — Before we begin debating her talent, potential landing spots or, most importantly, whether she’d ever consider it, let’s first acknowledge the obvious: A Danica Patrick return to the Verizon IndyCar Series, while unlikely, would be great for the series.

Not good. Great.

Despite a challenging 2017 NASCAR campaign, Patrick, who announced Tuesday that she will not be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018, is still one of the most recognizable names in motor sports, and she is undeniably one of the most polarizing athletes in the country.

She also now appears to be a free agent, and IndyCar would be wise to explore a reunion.

Danica Patrick readies for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 9. (Peter Casey, USA TODAY Sports)

Warranted or not, debates surrounding her place on the track take place every week — in the stands, at bars and on social media. She is discussed more than most any other driver not named Dale Earnhardt Jr. 

That means it does not matter whether you believe she is a talented driver or has been given more opportunities than she deserves. All you need to know is that because of her ability to drive debate, her return to IndyCar would be invigorating to a series that records weekly Nielsen TV ratings around 1.0 — the Indianapolis 500 notwithstanding.

Week in and week out, thousands more fans would tune in to watch “The Return”  in order to, A) Root her on in proving her doubters wrong; or B) Cheer against her and proudly say, “I told you so,” if she fails.

Either way, it’s a win for the series, which could use one right now as it negotiates new TV and title sponsorship deals.

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For at least a year, ratings would soar and IndyCar gets what it’s been saying it wants all along: A chance to show as many people as possible why it’s the world’s most competitive racing circuit. 

Worst case scenario, Patrick is not competitive, and the boost is short-lived. After seven full seasons in IndyCar and five full seasons in NASCAR, it’s fair to say her star has faded some, and she might not be able to hold interest for long if she’s running in the back — as she has this season.

But if she’s competitive when she returns, watch out. Ratings can soar when Patrick runs well. When she won the pole at Daytona in 2013, the 9.9 Nielsen rating was the highest it had been since 2008 and higher than it’s been since. When she qualified on the second row for the 2008 Indy 500, four years into her IndyCar career, the 4.6 was better than it’s been in the nine years since — including for the 100th running (3.9) and for Fernando Alonso-mania (3.4).

A fast Patrick still brings attention to the track, and if there’s a way IndyCar can lure her back, the people in charge should do what they can to make it happen.

So will it happen? Probably not.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2016, Patrick said, “I don’t ever see myself just racing IndyCar anymore” before adding that she’s unlikely to ever run the 500 again.

However, similar sentiments were once expressed by Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti. While not on their level in terms of achievement, if Patrick wants to continue racing, IndyCar might be her best option. What’s more, it might be an ideal time for her to get back in the game. With IndyCar going to universal aero kits, everyone will be learning next year, so the disadvantage of being away for the past six years might not be so severe.

Still, a reunion seems unlikely, mostly because it’s difficult to imagine how a return would benefit Patrick.

For one, it would be tough to avoid the appearance of taking a step backward. It would look like she came from IndyCar, went to NASCAR and couldn’t hack it, and returned to IndyCar. That might not be exactly the way things unfolded, but it would be a tough perception to avoid.

She’d likely have to be OK with taking a pretty steep pay cut, and she’d have to find a team where she believes she could be competitive. There’s no point in coming back if she’s going to be an also-ran, and it seems at this point, many of the best seats in the series are taken.

Patrick has given no hints on what her future may hold, saying in a Facebook post announcing her departure from SHR that, “I have the utmost faith in myself and those around me, and feel confident about my future.” 

Whether that future includes IndyCar, it’s safe to say the racing world, as always, will be watching. 

Ayello: A Danica Patrick return would be great for IndyCar Series – USA TODAY

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