HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) - Tony Stewart expects to one day be trading paint with Danica Patrick.
While racing's most prominent female driver ponders her options for next year, Stewart said Saturday he has no doubts that Patrick will eventually make the jump to stock cars.
He should know: They've talked frequently about what it would take for Patrick to go from open-wheel racing to the heavier cars in NASCAR.
"I just know that she's excited about this and making this change," said Stewart, who leads the Sprint Cup standings heading into Sunday night's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "I can pretty much guarantee at some point she's going to be over here."
Stewart made the same jump himself more than a decade ago, leaving the Indy Racing League for a more lucrative deal in NASCAR. He's become something on a mentor to Patrick, who visited his racing shop and had a chance to talk with him further at sponsor appearances.
"She's looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Hey, this is what I want to do. It looks like fun. It looks like a lot of work, but it looks like fun,"' Stewart said. "She doesn't have some misguided idea that it's going to be easy doing it. She wants to do it the right way. She has the intention of doing everything right."
He doesn't expect Patrick to follow the path taken by Dario Franchitti, an Indy car star who jumped straight to Sprint Cup in 2008 without any stock-car experience and didn't even make it through the season. He's now back in the open-wheel series.
Stewart said he believes Patrick will work out some sort of deal that allows her to stay in Indy cars for at least another year or two while she gets the feel of the bulkier machines running part-time in a lower series, such as the second-tier Nationwide.
"You've got to learn," Stewart said. "You've got to get used to the heavier race car, less downforce, smaller tires. There's a lot of learning, a lot of race tracks you've got to get used to. It's sensory overload. That's why you've got to pay your dues before you get in this thing."
Patrick, the only woman to win a major-series race and the highest-finishing female in Indianapolis 500 history, has declined repeatedly to discuss her plans, saying she is focused on finishing this season. She's in the final year of her contract with Andretti Green Racing, but team owner Michael Andretti said two weeks ago they were close to an extension.
Still, a new deal wouldn't necessarily rule out the possibility of Patrick beginning her transition to NASCAR, where she would have a chance for a higher salary, more sponsorship and expanded marketing opportunities. There are only 18 races on the 2010 Indy schedule, which would leave plenty of open weekends to try out stock cars.
Stewart said he knows Patrick already has talked with "a lot" of NASCAR teams about making the switch, and there's been plenty of speculation that Stewart-Haas Racing, a first-year operation, would be a good spot for her. Patrick would draw unprecedented media attention if she switched series and Stewart is one of the few guys unlikely to be bothered by all the hoopla.
"It would be awesome for our sport if she was to come over here and be successful," he said.
Stewart, however, said there's no chance Patrick will be joining his Cup team in 2010. He has ruled out any possibility of adding a third car to race alongside him and Ryan Newman.
"It's too late to do something for next year," Stewart said. "We're just two weeks away from the Chase (for the Championship). We've got to be very focused on hopefully keeping two cars with a chance to win a championship. We just didn't get far enough to get something done for next year."