Danica Is At Her Best When At Indianapolis

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 25 2009
Dan and Danica went wheel to wheel late in Sunday's Indy 500. In the past, they went toe to toe. (Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

Dan and Danica went wheel to wheel late in Sunday's Indy 500. In the past, they went toe to toe. (Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Indianapolis – Her fourth-place finish as a rookie in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 officially launched Danicamania, and the cynical debate over whether Danica Patrick is more sizzle than steak.

It was with a sense of professional accomplishment then, that Patrick’s third-place finish in Sunday’s 93rd Indianapolis 500 was viewed as just another trip to the time-clock.

“I’m just doing my job,” said Patrick, who trailed Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon across the finish line Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “My job is to finish as high as possible and get as many wins as possible. So I’m actually glad about that shift (in perception). I’m glad that it’s not like, ‘Oh, my God, wow, third.’ I’m paid to do this job, so I wish it could have been a little bit better, like I said. But it was a good day overall. And for the tough month that we had and just how we had to keep our heads down so much of the time, it ended up turning out pretty well.

“So, I’m glad that people are seeing it more like just a good finish from a good driver.”

Patrick silenced the majority of her critics when she scored her breakthrough IndyCar Series victory at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan in April 2008, to become the first woman to win a major-league open-wheel race in a North American Series. Patrick, of Andretti Green Racing, rolled into Indy on the strength of back-to-back top-five finishes in the season’s first three events.

Patrick’s podium finish here was the highest by a woman in race history, bettering the fourth she recorded en route to winning Chase Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors in 2005.

Her late-race battle Sunday with Wheldon, in fact, conjured up memories of the ‘05 Indy 500. Recall that Patrick, then driving for Rahal Letterman Racing, took the lead from the Englishman on a Lap 189 restart but was forced to slow her pace to save fuel. Wheldon, then driving for AGR, completed the race-winning pass on Lap 194 en route to his first/only Indy 500 victory.

“I think I did my best to stay calm the first year, for sure,” said Patrick, 27, who became the first woman to lead a lap in the Indy 500 in ’05 and finished with a total of 19. She failed to add to that stat Sunday.

“I’d have to say there are lots of parallels, actually,” Patrick said. “I remember in the very beginning of the race I had some engine cuts happening and I dropped back to 10th, and I was nothing special back there. I was just hanging out. That’s kind of the way it was this year. Once I was back in the pack, it wasn’t anything special and that’s how I felt the first half.

“But I think once the track grip came up enough where it came into me being able to be flat-out there, I think that’s when it made the difference out on the track and I could make passes happen. And my crew did a good job. The pit stops were good. I mean, I’m happiest I’ve ever been with my team there.

“But I have mixed emotions about both of them, obviously. I was happy with the day. I was happy with the ’05 day with what happened, but to miss a win here …and it’s enough to just have a chance. If you can be there, that doesn’t happen that often, but to miss it is even more like, oh. But what can I say? Helio was really fast and Dan did a good job, too.”

The race shaped-up as a shootout among Castroneves, Wheldon and Patrick when the green flag fell for a restart on Lap 183 of the scheduled 200. At that point, Castroneves led Patrick by 0.2661 seconds as she and Wheldon flew side-by-side down the frontstretch.

“Had a great restart and awesome run out of (Turns) 3 and 4, and went instantly to the outside of (Turn 4),” said Patrick, driver of the No. 7 Boost Mobile/Motorola Dallara/Honda. “It was that good of a run. I just kind of stalled out, I just didn’t have enough. I think that was the difference. That was kind of us being ready for the whole run, the whole race and not just the last run. It seemed Dan was a little more trimmed-out maybe because it was just kind of run side-by-side all the way down into (Turn) 1.

“I thought I was going to pass him completely on the outside, but that didn’t happen. He went low and I wish I would have went low before he got low because if it was side-by-side going into the corner with me on the inside, it would have worked, probably. It’s just not a good idea. It’s not a two-lane track.

“But it was a good job. Dan did a good job. He looked like he had a handful in front of me.”

Wheldon admitted he didn’t have anything for Castroneves, the pole-sitter who claimed his third Indy 500 victory and record 15th for Team Penske by a margin of 1.9819 seconds.

“But I would have to say we did…I think there’s nothing more that we could have done in this race,” said Wheldon, driver of the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing Dallara/Honda. “I was, you know, still fighting a little imbalance in the race car, but I think everybody was. It was difficult conditions out there.

“(And) I was toward the end having to hold off Danica. She’s certainly a tough competitor. I think she’s a lot like those troops – she never gives up. So all credit to Danica.”

Considering their rather hissy history, that was an unexpectedly gracious comment. Recall that while Wheldon got to swig milk and have his likeness added to the Borg-Warner Trophy in 2005, Danica exited IMS with a slew of records and newfound mainstream appeal. By time the series reached Texas Motor Speedway in early June, Wheldon felt compelled to break out a t-shirt that read: “I actually won the 2005 Indy 500.”

Their rivalry was raised several notches in 2007, when Patrick confronted and shoved Wheldon on pit road after the A.J. Foyt 225 at The Milwaukee Mile. Patrick charged that Wheldon had intentionally cut her off early in the race, damaging the steering linkage on her car and putting her a lap down. Testy exchanges in the media filled the ensuing week on the road to Fort Worth, where TMS president Eddie Gossage giddily fanned the flames by billing the rematch as a “Dan vs. Danica” in a boxing-style promotion complete with tale of the tape and images of impresario Don King.

Asked to update his view of Patrick’s driving prowess Sunday, Wheldon –seated alongside Danica on the dais – joked, “Can we do it when she’s not here?”

Patrick: “You have to be nice now.”

“It’s funny, actually, because everybody thinks we don’t get along,” Wheldon said with a smile. “I would say we’ve always got along very well, other than Milwaukee, and we cleared that up pretty quickly. She can get feisty every now and then, but so can I.

“But I obviously was starting my career in Europe, and I know Danica went over there and, you know, from the time she was over there she’s driven for people that I’ve driven for before. And I’m not saying it because she’s here, she’s always been somebody that I’ve respected. There’s actually a big race in England called the Formula Ford Festival, which is kind of like a young, crazy version of the Indianapolis 500, and she did very well there, and that’s an incredibly tough event.

“But I’ve always thought that she can do the job, that she’s certainly…I don’t treat her like, you know, a female on the racetrack. She’s just a formidable competitor that doesn’t give up. I wish she perhaps would have because I was sweating with how loose I was because I couldn’t turn the car. But she’s an IndyCar winner, and you know, to win IndyCar races nowadays is incredibly difficult. And anybody that’s an IndyCar winner in my book, it doesn’t matter what they look like, what their gender is, they’re somebody I’ll respect immensely.”

Patrick, who qualified 10th on Pole Day, added that she has been decidedly more “proactive” this season, in part because her race day strategy is being dictated by team co-owner and former open-wheel star Michael Andretti.

“Mike has done a fantastic job on the radio,” said Patrick, who now has four top-10 finishes at Indy in five starts, including results of 8-22-3 with AGR. “He’s a passionate guy. He gets very into it, and I think in practice I see more of that even than in the race. In the race he stays really calm, even on the pit stops I was looking over to him and he was just standing very calm. That’s very important.

“So when he needs to be on, he’s on, and he’s right. But I think he was just saying, he was telling me ‘Good job’ every now and again. You know, he was obviously telling me when to tune the fuel down and things like that, but I mean he did a great job on the radio. I think the most important thing from someone like that and basically a voice in your ear is that they are calm. They can’t influence you because, trust me, there’s plenty going on to influence me on my own.” 

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 25 2009
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