Japanese Fans Remember Danica’s ‘Big Night’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 17 2010

Danica Patrick's rough season matters not at all to Japanese fans. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Motegi, Japan –  Danica Patrick admittedly continues to struggle through “just a tough year”  that has seen her add an abbreviated NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule to her fulltime IndyCar Series job with Andretti Autosport.

But don’t try telling that to her Japanese fans. Twin Ring Motegi remains the site of Danica’s lone IZOD IndyCar Series victory in 2008, when she became the first woman driver to win a major closed-course motorsports event. On cue, her fans were out in droves during a driver autograph session in the garage area Friday afternoon. Japanese fans not only lined up for Danica’s autograph, but also to present her with tokens of their esteem.

“The fans are very generous, they’re really into this in Japan,” said Patrick, who has finished in the top 11 in all five of her starts and led 35 laps around TRM’s 1.5-mile oval. “I get purses and key chains and photos and something that I have that I’ve kept with me since I got it a couple of years ago – a photo of the pylon at the end of the race in 2008 with me at the top. And there’s a small little postage strip that says “Big Night” and it was from one of my fans here. So I’ve kept that in my travel pack as a reminder.

“I do feel very lucky. I’m reminded when I walk outside how many great fans there are. I did an appearance for lunch at the cafeteria and there was a very big fan of mine who held up a banner – a flag – of me for 40 minutes straight. And held it and shook it and bounced for 40 minutes. So I would say to the fans thank you for your support and always being happy and positive and giving me a good experience for now the sixth year in a row.”

Still, it has been 46 starts since Patrick won here, and 81 starts since her last pole at Chicagoland Speedway in 2005. Danica’s IndyCar stats are underwhelming heading into Sunday’s 200-lap/300-miler. Patrick posted her best start/finish of 2010 during the June night race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, where she qualified eighth and finished second to Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske.

Incredibly, the Firestone 550k also saw Danica lead her only lap of the season to-date and post her highest point-standing (ninth). She has been ranked 11th overall since a 10th-place finish in the Iowa Corn Indy 250 at Iowa Speedway on June 20.

Danica has been running at the finish of every race this season, but that’s little consolation after finishing a career-best fifth in points in 2009.

“You know I really can’t put my finger on it,” said Patrick, driver of the No. 7 Team GoDaddy.com Dallara/Honda. “I think we had high expectations from last year. This year we want wins, and therefore we’ve taken some more risks to try and get that and it hasn’t worked out for us. Good luck hasn’t been on our side either, like it was last year. So those are the only things I really identify, other than it’s just a tough year.”

Patrick stood 10th on the speed chart following the first of two, one-hour practices Saturday morning. Danica’s best lap was 197.960 mph on the eighth of 12 circuits she recorded. Points-leader Will Power of Team Penske topped the session at 201.245 mph on lap 52 of the session-high 53 he completed in the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda.

“As for this weekend, I look to win again,” Patrick said. “It’s been a tough year and it would be a really nice thing to happen as the year comes to a close. It would be another great moment here in Japan.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 17 2010
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