LONG POND, Pa. (AP) - Danica Patrick appears set to make her long-awaited move to NASCAR.
However, her debut in the top-tier Sprint Cup series could be years away.
While Patrick has made strides in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, Dale Earnhardt Jr., believes Patrick needs more time and experience in the second-level circuit before making the fulltime leap to suiting up on Sundays.
Earnhardt, co-owner of JR Motorsports, said he wants Patrick to run a full Nationwide schedule with his team. She has driven 19 Nationwide races for his team over the last two seasons and has six more scheduled starts this year.
``I think that anyone that comes into the sport, anyone, needs two to three years in the Trucks and the Nationwide Series to step into the Cup Series comfortably,'' Earnhardt said at Pocono Raceway. ``Two or three years in the Nationwide Series is a pretty decent amount. And that would be rushing it in my mind. These cars, the Cup cars, are a real challenge.''
Two people familiar with Patrick's 2012 plans said this week she is in the final stages of a deal to run a full-time Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports and limited Sprint Cup Series races with the team owned by two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. The people spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because the deal won't be finished until she has secured a release from Andretti Autosport.
Stewart declined to address the report.
Earlier this year, Stewart said he would love to work with Patrick but only in the Sprint Cup Series. He has wanted to expand his two-car Stewart-Haas Racing organization but had no interest in fielding a Nationwide car.
Patrick is winless in 19 career Nationwide races.
Earnhardt didn't have much of an update on contract talks.
``I have nothing new to report on that,'' he said. ``I guess I'm really not in the middle of it, but I guess they're still moving forward. I don't know nothing that I didn't know last week.''
Earnhardt did secure one superstar for his Nationwide program - five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson will take a rare dip into the series to drive for his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
Johnson, who hasn't competed in Nationwide since 2008, will drive the No. 7 car in the Aug. 13 race at Watkins Glen. It's part of his promotional work for a video game.
``Mainly, it's just to try to keep the company healthy,'' Earnhardt said. ``The guys in the shop get excited about it and it builds morale. Everybody in the shop is excited to be putting a car together for somebody like Jimmie. So it's a pretty neat deal for everybody involved.''
Johnson is excited to try to drive his boss-for-a-day's car to Victory Lane.
``The interview to drive for him was rather tough,'' Johnson said. ``He wanted to see my resume.''
HIT THE ROAD, NASHVILLE: It's going to take another Music City Miracle to bring NASCAR back to Nashville Superspeedway.
Dover Motorsports Inc. announced this week it won't hold NASCAR races at the concrete track in 2012 and may put the superspeedway up for sale. The company had been trying unsuccessfully to secure a NASCAR Sprint Cup race since 2001.
Driver noticed the thin crowds at Trucks and Nationwide races and felt the time was right to bump it off the schedule.
``The grandstands at Nashville haven't been full since the first day that we went there, and I've preached for a long time that the race tracks need to be responsible for something in the whole matter here,'' Kevin Harvick said. ``They have the responsibility of filling up the grandstands.
``It's just one of those deals where they couldn't make it work for whatever reason and we need to be at places that can fill up the grandstands. There's a lot of race tracks on the circuit that have been able to fill up the grandstands, and they couldn't and it didn't work out for them.''
The superspeedway faced competition from too many tracks just a short drive away in Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky.
Harvick said the Nationwide date didn't need to be replaced because the second-tier series already had too many races on the schedule.
Nashville had been on NASCAR's schedule for the Cup series until 1984.
``That was big-time racing for short-track guys, so I don't know where the disconnect took place,'' five-time champ Jimmie Johnson said. ``Sad to see it and hopefully it can turn around.''
DAMAGED GOODS: Pocono Raceway has invested in safety improvements and other upgrades around the track over the last few years.
The track just didn't expect it would have to buy a new flag stand.
Pocono's flag stand was destroyed when a Trucks Series hauler barreled into it on Thursday. Pocono put up a makeshift stand for the weekend.
``We could have used a new one, but I'm not sure like this,'' said track CEO Brandon Igdalsky, laughing.
HEY MAN, I'M 40!: Time to blow out the candles at Hendrick Motorsports.
Lots of them.
Jeff Gordon hit the big 4-0 on Thursday. Alan Gustafson, Gordon's crew chief, turned 35 the next day. And Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus also turned 40 on Friday.
``Every once in a while it kind of sinks in, but, again, it's just another day and it's been 40 great years,'' Gordon said.
The birthdays make party planning easy at Hendrick. Johnson joked the company needed to send just one mass birthday e-card.
``In two days, we knocked out a large percentage of the Hendrick employees,'' he said.

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