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No Indy, No Big Deal Says Danica Patrick

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 25 2012

Danica Patrick says her heart is in Concord this weekend, not in Indianapolis. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

CONCORD, N.C. – When Danica Patrick takes the green flag in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway it will be the first time in 36 years that a woman has competed in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series longest race.

It also will be the first time in seven years Patrick hasn’t taken the green flag in the Indianapolis 500.

Many have wondered if Patrick might be casting a longing glance towards Indiana as she concentrates on becoming the first woman to face 900 miles in two days at the 1.5-mile track. After all, the only time she finished outside the top 10 was in 2008 when Ryan Briscoe’s right rear tire clipped her left rear and caused both of them to wreck as they exited pit road. She also led a total of 29 laps in two years and recorded a third-place finish in 2009. However, on Thursday, Patrick assured everyone that Indy wasn’t tugging at her heart.

“Last weekend when I had time to watch qualifying, I was thinking about Indy and I was thinking about how I would be doing if I was there,” the 30-year-old Patrick said. “I can imagine every thought that is going through all those drivers’ heads. I didn’t feel like I wanted to be there. I just had memories of what was going on. I’m very pleased that I’m in NASCAR. I’m very happy. I’m having a lot of fun. I’m looking

Two former Indy 500 drivers are spending this Memorial Day weekend in North Carolina. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

forward to a different challenge this weekend.”

Executing the NASCAR double – competing in a Nationwide Series race one day and a Sprint Cup event the next – will indeed be challenging for the drivers as they expect to face the hottest race day this year with temperatures hovering around 90 degrees. Still NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and team owner Tony Stewart doesn’t expect Patrick to encounter a problem, having already had double weekends at Daytona and Darlington.

“She did a good job at Darlington,” said Stewart, who ran 1,100 miles in one day when he raced in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. “If you can get through Darlington weekend, you can get through this weekend. Those extra 100 miles here aren’t near as hard as it is at Darlington, I believe.”

Patrick cited her challenges as staying focused, positive and hydrated on a “whole different weekend” than what she’s ever experienced before.

“I don’t think that my experiences from Indy will help me this weekend as a direct result,” Patrick said. “I think that my experience over the last 20 years of racing and seven professional years in IndyCar are what’s going to help me overall.”

Patrick is the first woman to compete in the Coca-Cola 600 since Janet Guthrie in May 1976. Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, entered the Charlotte race then known as the World 600 after failing to qualify for that year’s Indy 500. She started 27th and finished 15th, 21laps behind winner David Pearson. Guthrie was running at the finish and placed ahead of such drivers as Bill Elliott, Buddy Baker, Dale Earnhardt, Dick Trickle and Bobby Isaac.

However, Guthrie faced an entirely different world from Patrick. This year, Patrick has been touted in commercials promoting the event. In 1976, Guthrie’s presence in the NASCAR garage drew ire and skepticism. Though she was the 11th woman to compete in NASCAR, no female had ever attempted a race on a high-speed, banked oval, let alone one that was 600 miles, and Guthrie’s naysayers doubted a woman’s ability to physically handle a stock car for such a marathon event. There was no power steering and the cars weighed at least 3,700 pounds. Others believed Guthrie wouldn’t qualify or speedway officials would falsify her qualifying time to assure her a starting spot.

Guthrie’s 157.797 mph qualifying lap gave her the 27th starting position in the 40-car field. Patrick posted a 185.179-mph lap Thursday in Coca-Cola 600 qualifying, but had to use owner points to claim the 40th starting position in the 43-car field.

After Guthrie qualified for the Charlotte race, the speedway sold more tickets in one day than it had at any other time. ABC executives negotiated a deal to include the race as part of the network’s “Wide World of Sports” Indy 500 broadcast, a boon at a time when NASCAR lacked mainstream media coverage.

Patrick has been a major player in the advertising of the sport since she made her stock car racing debut with a sixth-place finish in an ARCA event at Daytona. Stewart said he wasn’t surprised at how big a player Patrick had become in the sport’s marketing plans.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a female in the sport at this level,” Patrick said. “It’s the only time that we have ever had a female that is this competitive. I think it is good. It brings a whole new demographic of people. It brings a whole new fan base to the sport that we haven’t had before.”

Patrick said she was ready to leave IndyCar when she moved to NASCAR.

“I wanted to be here,” she continued. “When you are not missing something, longing for something, you don’t really think about it that much. It’s like that girlfriend you didn’t want to have anymore. You don’t think about her anymore. Or ex-husband, we all seem old enough to be at that point.

“Indy, I have lots of great memories from there and probably the part of me that doesn’t feel quite as longing for it is that there is still a chance that I could do it again. It’s not gone.”

And if Patrick wants to one day follow in Stewart’s footsteps and do the Indy 500-Coca-Cola 600 double, her boss doesn’t have a problem with it.

“I’m not going to do it with her, but she is more than welcome to do it,” Stewart said. “I put in my time.”

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 25 2012
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