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Danica Setting Self Up For Big Finish In Vegas?

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 14 2011

Danica Patrick bids adieu to the IZOD IndyCar Series this weekend in Las Vegas. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Quite used to generating headlines by merely showing up at a “friggin’^” racetrack, Danica Patrick let her numbers do some meaningful talking during the opening practice for Sunday’s season-ending IZOD INDYCAR World Championships presented by Honda.

Patrick – making what will be her 116th and final IndyCar start as a series regular for the forseeable future – topped the speed chart Thursday around the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway oval at an impressive 24.7349-seconds and 224.719 mph. Oriol Servia of Newman/Haas Racing was second at 23.8114-seconds and 224.026 mph in the No. 2 Telemundo Dallara/Honda.

“It’s friggin’ fast out there,” said Patrick, driver of the No. 7 Team GoDaddy Dallara/Honda. “Almost a 225 (mph) lap is like Indy (500) speeds. The track is nice and smooth and we’ll be three-wide out there, which will be exciting. The race is going to be crazy – and the crashes will be spectacular. Nothing would let me turn the page better than winning here.”

IndyCar’s undisputed marketing star, Patrick scored her lone series victory on the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi oval in Japan on April 20, 2008. She has gone 65 winlesss races since that historic victory. Nevertheless, Patrick paced a superb session for Andretti Autosport,

Danica Patrick will be driving cars with windshields and fenders next year. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

which placed all four of its cars in the top 10. Teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay (223.888 mph/third), Mike Conway (223.558 mph/fifth) and Marco Andretti (223.509 mph/seventh) joined Danica in the top 10.

Meanwhile, Dario Franchitti and Will Power – who will decide the 2011 IndyCar championship between themselves – were ninth (223.465 mph) and 14th (222.220 mph), respectively. Franchitti, the three-time/reigning series champion from Target Chip Ganassi Racing, has an 18-point lead over Power of Team Penske.

The Las Vegas Indy 300 will mark Patrick’s exit from the open-wheel ranks, as she will join the NASCAR Nationwide Series fulltime in 2012 in a Chevrolet Impala fielded by JR Motorsports and team-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. Patrick also will run a limited schedule of NASCAR Sprint Cup races with team-owner Tony Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing.

Heading into Friday’s second practice and PEAK Performance Pole Qualifying session, Patrick insisted she is exiting the series after seven years with zero regrets.

“I very much don’t believe in regret, because I think that every little thing that I’ve done so far has put me to where I am today and made me who I am today,” said Patrick, who has spent the last five seasons driving for team-owner and former Championship Auto Racing Teams star Michael Andretti. “To change one little thing that may have not seemed so fun or so great was all part of the process. A lot of times you learn more from the mistakes than you do from doing things right.

“So, it’s all part of the process and the journey. In the end, the journey is the fun thing and once you’ve accomplished what you want, you just set another goal. I wouldn’t change anything.”

Patrick, 29, launched Danicamania when she qualified and finished fourth in the 89th Indianapolis 500 in 2005 as a rookie. She also led 19 laps – the first for a woman driver at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – before being overhauled by eventual champion Dan Wheldon.

“I mean, I’ll always remember my first Indy 500 for sure, winning in Japan, and those will be the things that I remember most,” said Patrick, who began her IndyCar career with Rahal Letterman Racing. “I’ll remember that it has gone fast, but at the same time it seems like light years from 2005 when I started and how far I’ve come as a person and how many things I’ve been able to do, and all the things that I’ve learned along the way. So a lot has happened in that seven years. It’s where I got my start, and it’s what made me who I am today. I’ve had a lot of fun.”

Perhaps distracted by the hoopla surrounding her departure, Patrick said she showed up at LVMS thinking Thursday was an open test day. IndyCar competed at the facility from 1996-2000, but the layout has since been reconfigured to its current D-shape with turns banked at 20 degrees. Two-time Indy 500 champion Arie Luyendyk set the LVMS open-wheel qualifying record at 23.842-seconds and 226.491 mph in a Reynard/Ford on Sept. 14, 1996.

In any event, Patrick is pleased to be closing out her open-wheel career on an oval where she has a marginal experience advantage. Patrick finished fourth in the Nationwide race at LVMS on March 5.

“That is nice. That is nice to end on an oval,” Patrick said. “I think I still believe that our most exciting races are put on at a mile-and-a-half. We always have our closest finishes and our most side-by-side racing and our most spectacular crashes. So to end it like this is great, and to end it in a cool place like Vegas as well, and also having that little bit of experience and history of being the highest-finishing female in NASCAR here earlier this year, it’s a nice little come around story. I’m looking forward to the weekend. I’m excited. I think my emotion is just like I’m excited for this last race.”

From her stock car experience, Patrick said the track’s grip level should make for what Power described as “pack racing” in the extreme.

“Even in a stock car there is a lot of grip here, so I’m sure that it means that we’re going to be three or four wide, four or five rows deep for a lot of the race here,” said Patrick, who is working on a series-record 50 consecutive races running at the finish. “I think it’s going to be a great way to finish the season off. Having that little bit of experience here in a stock car, I think will help. It definitely can’t hurt.

“Again, I haven’t been here in an IndyCar (but) I think it’s going to be a lot of grip, and I think it’s going to make it easier. We’re going to have an easier time setting the car up, so I don’t think it will play a huge role. I definitely had my say so on what I thought the car should be set up like coming into the weekend. But that’s about it.”

A record 34-cars are entered for the 200-lapper, set for a 3:45 p.m. (EDT) start Sunday. The broadcast will air live on ABC at 3 p.m. and also carried by the IMS Radio Network on XM Channel 94.

Team-owner Michael Shank announced his organization will expand operations by launching an IZOD IndyCar Series effort in 2012. The team, MSR Indy, has purchased a 2012 Dallara chassis and is set to take delivery on Dec. 15. The team will be powered by Lotus engines. MSR Indy will be based at Michael Shank Racing’s 20,000 square-foot shop located outside of Columbus, Ohio. The team also will contest a full season Daytona Prototype campaign in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series.

“For me, the Indianapolis 500 has always been the dream,” Shank said. “With the new 2012 Dallara IndyCar, there is a window for a team like mine to join the series and pursue that dream. We’ve got the opportunity to come in and make an impact while still running an efficient program, doing the most we can with the available resources. We’re still working on finalizing several elements of our program, but we wanted to take this opportunity to announce our commitment to INDYCAR and we look forward to finalizing plans and to being ready to go in 2012.”

Shank formed MSR Indy via a pair of partnerships that grew out of long-term business relationships. Columbus-area businessman Brian Bailey has joined the MSR Indy effort as a principal partner. MSR Indy also will see NASCAR Sprint Cup regular A.J. Allmendinger, a former Champ Car World Series driver, join the venture as a principal partner through his Walldinger Racing management company.

“Obviously, I have a close connection to open-wheel racing. But add that to the chance to work with Mike and his organization and it’s something that really appealed to me,” said Allmendinger, currently driving the No. 43 Ford Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports. “Mike is one of the hardest working guys in motorsports and he’s a racer. I’ve always liked that about him, so I know he’ll fight hard for MSR Indy’s performance. We also hope to open some business relationships for our NASCAR Cup partners with this effort, too.”

There is nothing odd about the chalk favorite to win the season-ending Las Vegas Indy 300. Dario Franchitti, three-time/reigning series champion, has been installed as a 9-5 betting favorite by Jay Rood, vice president of Race & Sports MGM Resorts International. Franchitti is chasing his fourth IndyCar title in five years. Will Power, the only other driver eligible to win the championship, is listed at 3-1.

The remaining odds – presented as news material only – are Scott Dixon, 8-1; Tony Kanaan, 11-1; Ryan Briscoe, 15-1; Helio Castroneves, 20-1; Ryan Hunter-Reay, 25-1; Marco Andretti, 50-1; Oriol Servia, 50-1; Alex Tagliani, 50-1; Graham Rahal, 60-1; Danica Patrick, 60-1; JR Hildebrand, 75-1; Vitor Meira, 100-1 and Paul Tracy, 100-1.

All others in the field, including two-time/reigning Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, are listed at 50-1. Wheldon is the lone competitor eligible for the Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge. If Wheldon _ who will start from the back of the field in a Sam Schmidt Motorsports/Bryan Herta Autosport entry _ wins the race, he and a fan will each pocket $2.5-million. Wheldon was 22nd on Thursday’s chart at 221.440 mph.

Firestone Indy Lights practice was paced by Gustavo Yacaman with a lap in 28.6342-seconds and 194.118 mph in the No. 2 TMR – Tuvacol/Xtreme Coil Drilling car. Stefan Wilson was second at 28.7179-seconds/193.553 mph in the No. 5 Andretti Autosport entry. Firestone Indy Lights competitors will run the Las Vegas 100, a 67-lap race, at 12:45 p.m. (EDT) on Sunday.

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 14 2011
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