Danica’s In Need Of Something Positive

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 29 2010

E.J. Viso and Danica Patrick are seated next to each other during Saturday's drivers meeting at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD Indy Racing League)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Indianapolis – Other than her win at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan two years ago, the place where Danica Patrick has been most comfortable throughout her IndyCar career is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As a rookie in 2005, she qualified fourth for the Indy 500 after a small bobble cost her a shot at the pole. Patrick then went out and became the first woman to lead the big race before finishing fourth, another best by a female.

In four subsequent starts, she has finished eighth twice, crashed out in 22nd after starting fifth and, last year, improved her best showing here to third.

But 2010 has been a season of disappointment for Patrick so far, and even Indy has been a downer.

She isn’t alone, though. The entire five-car Andretti Autosports team has struggled with poor handling and slow speeds since the track opened two weeks ago. Marco Andretti is the top entry, putting his car in the 16th starting spot, with Ryan Hunter-Reay 17th, Patrick 23rd,  John Andretti – driving a car co-owned by Richard Petty – 28th and Tony Kanaan 33rd.

But Patrick, one of a record four women in the 33-car field, remains the glamour girl of open-wheel racing and the spotlight still falls upon her – good or bad.

When a disappointed Patrick got out of her car and said on the track public address system that she was not at fall for her poor qualifying, blaming the team, she was loudly booed by the crowd. That came as a shock to the woman who has been riding a wave of DanicaMania popularity since her scintillating rookie year at Indy.

Things have calmed a bit for the always tempestuous Patrick since last weekend’s qualifying. She even drew a loud cheer and wore a brilliant smile Friday after qualifying into the quarterfinals of the pit stop contest.

“The team did a great job,’’ she said. “This is on them. I’m proud of them.’’

Mending fences? Whatever, it seemed to work as the morale on her No. 7 Dallara-Honda team rose noticeably, a welcome change considering how poorly the season has gone to this point.

The first four races of the season were on street and road courses, where Patrick generally struggles. Her best finish was seventh at St. Petersburg in the second race, the only time she has finished in the top 10 so far this year.

Worse, the first oval race of the season, at Kansas, produced a relatively non-competitive 11th-place finish.

That has made Sunday a critical race for Patrick, and she isn’t afraid to acknowledge that fact.

“It is critical because I thought the oval stretch would be a turning point for us … and maybe I wouldn’t be so stressed out,’’ she said earlier this week. “And that has pushed me to really stick to my guns, to what I want in a race car.’’

Some people are convinced Patrick, who signed a three-year contract extension with Michael Andretti’s team before the start of the season, has lost interest in IndyCar racing because she is also now dabbling in NASCAR.

She brewed up a storm of publicity in signing with Junior Motorsports to run some second-tier NASCAR Nationwide Series races this year and next.

But Patrick, who has improved in the IndyCar season points each year until now, insists she is still focused on winning Indy and an open-wheel title.

“This is my job,’’ she said, steel in her eyes and voice. “I’m going to do my job and, hopefully, we can still be successful.’’

A good finish Sunday would be a big step in the right direction.

Starting position means little after the early laps in a 500-mile race and Patrick said she is confident she can work her way up front because she knows how to race at Indy.

“I look back to 2005,’’ she said. “I was able to keep a level head. It’s a long day,  a really long day.  But here at this special place called Indy, there is a chance.’’

There are others who still believe in her, too.

Roger Penske, whose team has won a record 15 times at Indy and has three of the favorites in Sunday’s race in pole-winner and reigning champion Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Ryan Briscoe, included Patrick in a short list of darkhorses on Sunday.

Penske, whose team is expected to get its biggest competition from the Target Chip Ganassi duo of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, both former Indy winners, said, “As far as anybody else in the field, I think we’ve got (Alex) Tagliani, young (Graham) Rahal, certainly Kanaan coming from the back, Danica, and there are a number of other people out there that can run well.

“I think we’re focusing on each other,’’ he added, referring to the Penske-Ganassi rivalry. “But I can tell you, come race day, we might see a much different picture.’’

Patrick, who desperately needs a good race here, can only hope Penske is right.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 29 2010
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