Reports emerged on Tuesday evening that Danica Patrick is close to finalising a deal that will see her leave IndyCar for a full season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2012.

According to ESPN, sources say that the deal would also include a few Sprint Cup race appearances, with the intention that this would lead on to a full time move to NASCAR's top series in 2013.

An unexpected additional detail additionally suggests that the deal would also be structured to allow Danica to compete in the 2012 Indianapolis 500, when many observers had been assuming that this would be her last appearance at the racetrack that arguably made her name and launched her stardom.

Danica has been beset with questions about her future in IndyCar at almost every turn during the Month of May at Indianapolis, and her unwillingness to give a firm assurance of staying in the series - or whether she would return to the Indianapolis 500 in 2012 - had been taken by many as tacit confirmation that her ambitions now lay in NASCAR.

"Anything is possible," she had said under media questioning. "I haven't made any of those decisions yet."

Danica appeared in 13 Nationwide races in 2010 and has competed in seven Nationwide races so far this season before the start of the IndyCar season; her best result to date has been fourth at Las Vegas in March. She is scheduled to complete at least five more before the end of the year, in what was always assumed to be a "primer" for a full time switch when her contract with Andretti Autosport expires at the end of this season.

The details reported by ESPN suggest that Danica is planning the same strategy of a phased introduction into Sprint Cup in 2012 before going full time in 2013.

It's unknown at this time which team Danica might be in negotiations with. She currently races for JR Motorsports which is owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. working in association with Hendrick Motorsports, the Sprint Cup team for which Earnhardt Jr. drives, but her contract with Dale also ends after 2011 making her a completely free agent.

Her sponsor, Go-Daddy.com, already fund both her IndyCar and Nationwide cars and this funding is expected to go with her to NASCAR in 2011. The company also funds Mark Martin in the #5 Sprint Cup entry, but he is due to step down from Hendrick Motorsports and may not be continuing full time in the series.

Martin is due to be replaced at Hendrick by Kasey Kahne, and the team also field Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. putting them at the limit of four, making it problematic for her to appear in races for that team in 2012.

Danica Patrick first competed in the Indy Racing League in 2005, and ran in her first Indianapolis 500 in May of that year. She narrowly missed out on pole position but still qualified fourth, the highest starting position for any female driver; she was the fourth woman to compete in the race, but the first to lead a lap. Her best result at Indianapolis was third place in 2009. In IndyCar, she has one race win to her credit at Motegi, Japan in 2008.

Her departure from IndyCar will be a major blow to a series that is still trying to get itself onto a more secure footing after the destructive split in the 90s into CART and IRL. Other than Danica, the series is desperately short on star names: Helio Castroneves is probably the most well known driver after Danica, thanks to his winning stint on the reality show Dancing with the Stars in 2007, and his high profile criminal trial for tax evasion in which he was found not guilty -

When it looked possible that Danica might not qualify for this year's Indianapolis 50 because of rain, there was a major panic among race organisers at the prospective absence from the race of their biggest and most bankable name. Fortunately the weather cleared and she was able to get in, rather than have to rely on the indignity of having the team buy out a qualified driver's pole position as has happened with Ryan Hunter-Reay replacing Bruno Junquiera.

IndyCar will be somewhat relieved to hear that Danica appears to be set on returning to Indianapolis again next year after all, although it doesn't help the series' efforts to rebuild its popularity for the rest of the season's events.

However, coverage of Simona de Silvestro following her accident on the Thursday during practice week, and her return to qualify on the grid despite badly burned hands, has captured significant media attention in the last week and may point to a new generation of stars coming up through the ranks. It may even have persuaded Danica that it's now or never in terms of exploiting her current celebrity status and converting it to a full-time NASCAR ride before it's too late.

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