Erin Crocker nervously watched the Indianapolis 500, silently rooting on Danica Patrick while doing her best to suppress any feelings of jealousy.

"It was nice to see another woman do well, and prove to the whole nation that a woman can do this," Crocker said. "But part of it was hard because there was all this news about Danica. It was frustrating because I want to be in the spotlight. I want to prove that I can do it."

Crocker and dozens of other female racers soon might get their chance: NASCAR now wants its own version of Patrick after watching the rookie wow Indianapolis last weekend with a fourth-place finish.

Already the most popular form of auto racing in the United States, NASCAR doesn't need the publicity buzz that Patrick gave the Indy Racing League. But from their boardroom in Daytona Beach, Fla., NASCAR's executives recognized the possibilities that surround a competitive young woman.

"What Danica did in Indianapolis was spectacular," said NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter. "We absolutely would love to have a female competing in our series and we do have some on the horizon. It's just a question of getting them in the right equipment and getting them experience."

Getting into a competitive car has been one of the biggest speed bumps facing female racers in NASCAR.

Several women have tried to break into stock cars, beginning with Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500.

Shawna Robinson has bounced around the Cup and Busch series for years. Kim Crosby is attempting a full Busch schedule this season, and Deborah Renshaw and Kelly Sutton both compete in NASCAR's Truck Series.

But most of them are just sputtering along in mediocre cars, unable to challenge for victories.

It's the same as what Sarah Fisher went through in the IRL. Voted the series' most popular driver three times, she started five Indianapolis 500s in cars that had zero chance of winning the race.

That could be about to change for the women of NASCAR, based in part on Patrick's success at Indy.

Sponsors now see the marketing potential in female racers and car owners recognize the benefits in patiently preparing one for a NASCAR career.

Now it's just a matter of finding drivers ready to race in NASCAR's top two series.

"I may think I am ready to go out there and run a Busch race tomorrow, but the reality is I have to wait, because if you go out there and stink up the show, your credibility is shot," Crocker said. "You work so hard to get your chance, and if you blow it when everyone is watching, that's it. And it's just not worth the setback."

Crocker is among the handful of females currently on NASCAR's radar. The only woman to win a World of Outlaws race, she signed a developmental deal with Ray Evernham and is scheduled to make her Busch series debut in September.

Just as car owner Bobby Rahal eased Patrick along, Evernham is doing the same with the 24-year-old Crocker.

"Erin is extremely talented, and some days she gets frustrated with me because we haven't had her in a car as much as she should be," Evernham said. "But she's a smart girl and she knows we have a plan for her if she can just be patient.

"You cannot start in a bad way in this sport, and that doesn't just apply to lady drivers. If you are brought on too fast and you aren't qualified, then all of a sudden you get labeled as a backmarker and your career is done."

The same goes for Fisher, who left the IRL this season for a developmental deal with Richard Childress, one of the top car owners in NASCAR.

Currently driving a car in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series, Childress has accelerated his plans for Fisher and hopes to have her in some Busch races later this year.

He's also signed 26-year-old Allison Duncan and placed her with his associate, Bill McAnally, in the Grand National series. Duncan, who earned her shot through NASCAR's Driver Diversity Program, remembers how hard it was to get Childress to sign her.

"I tested and Bill really liked me, but it took a little convincing to get RC on board because he already had Sarah Fisher and he was a little unsure about two female drivers," Duncan said. "But it worked out and it's continuing to work out for female racers."

But there are still plenty of battles ahead for female drivers.

Unlike open wheel racing, there are very few feeder series for stock car drivers. Most experience is gained through karting, sprint cars and dirt racing. When a racer finally gets a chance in a full-bodied car, it can take years to gain the experience needed for one of NASCAR's superspeedways.

Chip Ganassi, a car owner in both the IRL and NASCAR who has one of the deepest driver development programs going, said there just aren't any female racers ready to jump into a stock car and be competitive.

He notes that Rahal spent years preparing Patrick, and her sudden popularity won't push more car owners to run out and hire women.

"If rides were given out on popularity, I'd go hire Katie Holmes or Paris Hilton to drive for me," Ganassi said. "To get to this level, you have to be the real deal. It's not the NASCAR circus, it's NASCAR racing, and we have to be careful not to turn it into a circus.

"Women should get a chance in this sport, but only when they have the right level of prerequisites. Putting them in cars before then would turn this into a circus."

Today's women racers don't think it will be much longer before Fisher or Crocker is in a full-time Busch series ride. As badly as they want it now, all refuse to push based solely on trying to capitalize on Patrick's sudden fame.

The serious racers want to do it right, or not at all.

"I don't think R.C. is going to put me or Sarah in a Busch car just because Danica ran well in the Indy 500," Duncan said. "And I don't think he is going to do it because Danica helped pique sponsor interest in female racers.

"I think our day is coming. But a smart car owner is not going to do it until we are 100 percent ready. Anything short of that would be a setback to all of us out here trying."

"I want to be in the spotlight. I want to prove that I can do it," said Erin Crocker, who may get her wish as NASCAR considers courting women drivers.