Imagine the Indianapolis 500 without Danica Patrick.

Race officials soon will have to, perhaps next year.

Love her or hate her, she's the only thing keeping open-wheel racing anywhere near relevancy. Without her, the Indy 500 still would go on, but at a fraction of its current fractured state.

Sure, there are some great, talented drivers in the sport not named Danica. Some, you might actually have heard of or can pronounce their names. But they don't add any sizzle to a sport that lately has been all tire smoke and mirrors.

Patrick likely will bolt for NASCAR soon. She signed a deal in February to have IMG's Mark Steinberg and Alan Zucker represent her. Steinberg has another famous client, some golfer named Tiger Woods. Last time I checked Woods

didn't settle for playing in second-rate tournaments and endorsing brands few have heard of.

Think Eli and Peyton Manning are overexposed with ubiquitous TV commercials? Blame Zucker. He represents the brothers.

No doubt Patrick's new representatives won't settle for anything less for her. Enter NASCAR.

The sport likely would make sure Patrick had a top-tier ride regardless of if she wins in the rest of her time in an IndyCar.

She definitely has the talent to compete with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. She has proven herself worthy, especially on ovals.

So where does that leave IndyCar?

The sport is stuck on the Versus network for the next nine years, a channel that in a Yogi Berra sense, you don't get it even if you do.

Indy and four other races appear on ABC. If Danica goes that number likely will slip to only Indy.

That's not to say there aren't any open-wheel racing fans left. In fact, as late as the 1980s IndyCar's appeal eclipsed NASCAR. It wasn't even close. But after nearly two decades of disenfranchisement, the fans who might have wanted to stick around follow NASCAR. And the reunification has done little to draw them back.

At the height of open-wheel racing's popularity there weren't just big names driving the cars. Big names were on the cars. Andretti, Foyt, Unser and Mears drove Chevrolets, Fords and Mercedes pushing the envelope of technology and horsepower.

Now Danica, and everyone else drive a detuned spec Honda with a rev limiter.

Indy has to bring the big names back to succeed. It already has two - Andretti (Marco) and Rahal (Graham). It needs to keep its young American stars in the same top cars each year. Andretti and Rahal need to win a lot of races to keep their sport afloat and attract new young American drivers into the fold.

Owners need to stop outsourcing the driving talent. For the past two decades they have brought Brazilian and European imports who are better at Formula One-style blocking than clean racing.

No top sprint car or hotshot dirt track driver would set Indy as a goal when the no-talent ride buyers have taken up all the decent rides.

And as long as that trend continues, it'll just be me and a dozen others left to watch the carnage.

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