Danica In Win-And-Walk Situation At Indy?
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Danica Patrick isn’t wink-winking that her seventh Indianapolis 500 will be her last just yet.
But ask her after the checkered flag falls at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29. Because a victory by open-wheel racing’s most successful and popular woman driver in the 100th anniversary edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” remains Patrick’s “ultimate goal” – one that likely would seal her anticipated full-time move to NASCAR in 2012.
“I suppose anything is possible. But I know, for me, I haven’t made any of those decisions yet,” Patrick said during a news conference Thursday at IMS, prior to the resumption of practice after two rained-out sessions. “This is a special event in and of itself. Indy is my favorite race in the world – every everything.
“So like I just said, I love everything about this place. I love the tradition. I love the race itself. So many times you can come away from this event, after 500 miles, and think of how your strategy could have put you in Victory Circle. I think that’s why people love this place and so many people come back. So many people have that story as to how they could have maybe won the Indy 500, which is for me the ultimate goal. I would imagine for a lot of people it’s the ultimate goal. It’s definitely high up on the list.
“I just love this event. So I don’t know where the future is going to take me, but I know those things.”
Patrick, 29, is in the walk year of her contract with Andretti Autosport and team-owner Michael Andretti, who signed her to a two-year deal with “joint option” for a third year in December 2009. Andretti also signed-off on Danica’s desire to give stock car racing a try beginning in 2010 via a
limited ARCA and NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports, whose principal owner is Sprint Cup star Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Patrick became the first female in history to win a race in a major, closed-course event in April 2008 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. Despite that three-year vacuum since her lone IZOD IndyCar Series victory, Patrick remains open-wheel’s most recognizable “brand,” and a crossover star in NASCAR for joint sponsor GoDaddy.com.
In particular, Patrick’s record on the 2.5-mile IMS oval has been stellar, marked by a gender-best fourth-place start/finish as a rookie in 2005. She has five top-10 finishes in those six starts, including a sixth-place result last May, despite failing to lead a lap in the race for the fifth consecutive year. Patrick did pace the race three times for 19 laps in 2005, becoming the first woman to lead a lap in the event and finish on the lead lap.
Recall that Patrick took the lead from eventual winner Dan Wheldon, then driving for Andretti Green Racing, on a Lap 189 restart but then was forced to slow to conserve fuel. She was passed by the Brit on Lap 194 of 200, as well as by runnerup Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta.
“Yeah, just a wee girl racing at Indy. Now I’m old,” Patrick joked. “Seventh Indy, turning 29, those kinds of things. It seems like it was not that long ago that it was my first time here. I feel like I’ve always been some kind of an inexperienced driver at some level. I don’t think I’m going to get away with this anymore after this being the seventh one. That’s a good thing. If I could go back in time with the experience I have now, I would. Having the experience is a good thing. Hopefully it pays off Race Day.”
Patrick’s best finish at IMS is third in 2009. But Danica said that in her “selective memory,” the 2005 Indy 500 easily remains her favorite. It is, of course, the race that launched “Danicamania.”
“It’s the most memorable race I’ve ever done, for sure,” said Patrick, then driving for Rahal Letterman Racing. “Even more than when I won (at Motegi). I just remember everything about it. It was a great day, a life-changing day. (But) I really am approaching this like any other year. Actually, I feel like I get more nervous every year. I’m more nervous coming into it this year than last year. Maybe it’s because you’re getting older and on some level you think you have less of them to do, I don’t know.
“I also think after this many years, being here, it starts to really sink in what this event is all about.
Like I said, you have the chances where you could have won. You’re thinking, ‘How am I going to make that happen this year?’ You know, I have high expectations. Like I said, I’m more nervous than ever. I don’t know. Being nervous isn’t always the worst thing for me, so hopefully it works.”
Patrick and her Andretti Autosport teammates – Marco and John Andretti, Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay – have been struggling to find warp speed during this week’s rain-plagued practices. Today’s scheduled six-hour session on “Fast Friday” will be their last chance to close the gap to Team Penske’s Will Power, who posted the fastest lap of the month at 227.778 mph in the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda on Thursday. Pole Day qualifications are scheduled for Saturday.
“We’ve been moving very slowly, methodically, because the first time out we felt really good about it,” said Patrick, who placed 10th on Thursday’s speed chart at 226.267 mph in the No. 7 Team GoDaddy Dallara/Honda. “So we have the ability to not panic and rush, make all of our changes on pit lane. We don’t have to be throwing everything at it to see what we can do to make it go faster, although we are going to be doing things to try to make it go faster.
“Anything can happen. Anything can change. At this point in time, I feel pretty comfortable. You have to stay confident here. I think that’s a really important thing. I think you have to feel comfortable with your car. You have to go into Turn 1, every lap, with confidence. You have to be sure of yourself and your equipment.
“I just think we have to work smart. Sometimes that means not going back on changes, maybe just leaving the car where it’s at. I think drivers, engineers are inclined to make changes, make it go faster. Sometimes you can tune yourself out. Time will tell. This is a very unique place. It’s its own person, this track.”
That said, Patrick admitted she is at a crossroads in her career as NASCAR and its bigger/hotter/richer spotlight beckons the “wee girl” turned IndyCar Series “old-timer.”
“You know, hopefully I’ve gotten more savvy and wise with my personality, my tactics, my antics, as I’ve had some over the years,” said Patrick, whose short-fuse temper has been on display in a number
of in-car and pit-road YouTube moments. “I guess I came to find out as I grew older that being really honest, emotional all the time, while it is me and I don’t regret anything, it makes for work. It makes for work because people talk about it, people have opinions about it. As much as you don’t care, they still affect you and you have to deal with the situation.
“Kind of eliminating that kind of stuff as much as possible has been easier for everyone. It is easier. It’s less energy put toward things that aren’t about going faster. Kind of learned about that over the years.
“And what I want as a driver in a race car. You know, something that I feel like I always have to keep sticking to and reminding myself of is just being really honest with what I feel in the car, make the crew make the change, it doesn’t feel like it made a change, then you just say it. Even though they did, you have to be very honest. That’s the best way to keeping the car where you want it, is being honest with how it really feels, trying not to make anything up or anything like that.
“Just getting older, hopefully wiser, I don’t know. Hopefully I haven’t changed, too. Hopefully my friends, people close to me would say I’m the same Danica when they knew me from high school or as a kid. I hope that’s what they say, but I’m not the one to say that.”
Indy’s rich history will be recounted and replayed at a dizzying rate over the next 10 days, and Patrick
acknowledged that it is wonderful to have factored into the tradition. “I thought it was pretty cool that I was on the front of Sports Illustrated,” said Patrick, who graced a May 2006 cover of the magazine along with a “Yes She Can” headline. “That was pretty cool. Again, it reminded me of 2005, which I can’t forget. It just makes you want to win that bad, that much more.
“I think that’s part of what makes me more nervous every year I come here, is just wanting to really be a part of that, really wanting your face on the (Borg-Warner) Trophy, being a part of the footage that they run on the track feed when it’s raining, being part of that historic footage. Just achieving something that you worked so hard for. We do, we all work so hard for that.
“I would go so far as to say I don’t think there’s any other event that any team works as hard as the Indy 500 because of what it really means, what it can do for a driver, a team, anybody involved in a good day or a victory.”
Patrick was asked if there would be a void in her life if a move to NASCAR would prevent her from competing again in the Indy 500.
“I think whatever happens, I’ll take into consideration that this is a huge event,” Patrick said. “I think I’ve had great memories here, no matter what. I don’t know. I think that’s a question I don’t really have an answer to. I’m not there yet, so I don’t know yet. I haven’t thought about those kinds of things.
“But all I know is, I know I’m going to do my best to try to win this year and see what happens.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments