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Danica Strikes Up Swan Song At Indianapolis

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 2 2018

Danica Patrick is back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for what is likely her final appearance in an Indy car. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Danica Patrick is back in an Indy car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where she hopes a career built on “trusting my ass” will take her to one last flashback of Danicamania.

Patrick completed her veteran refresher test Tuesday around the 2.5-mile IMS oval, clearing the way for her to practice beginning on May 15 for the 102nd edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The race on May 27 is being billed as the finale of a career that took Patrick from superstardom in the Verizon IndyCar Series to star-crossed underperformer in NASCAR’s premier Cup Series.

Patrick was among three Indy 500 veterans and three rookies turning laps Tuesday. Each successfully passed test phases involving progressively increasing speeds. Patrick, Jay Howard and Sage Karam completed the two veteran refresher portions, while Kyle Kaiser, Matheus “Matt” Leist and Robert Wickens ran through the three required Rookie Orientation Program phases.

Back at IMS in an open-wheel ride for the first time in seven years, Patrick overcame water temperature issues and an ill-handling car to complete her refresher phases during the final 10 minutes of the three-hour session. She logged 52 laps, with a best effort of 218.500 mph.

I’ve been waiting to get this day over with for a long time. I say that with love,” said Patrick, driver of the No. 13 GoDaddy Chevrolet fielded by Ed Carpenter Racing. “I

Danica Patrick prepares to head out onto the track at Indy on Tuesday.

hope there’s some understanding for the words that I’m using. It’s been seven years since I drove an Indy car here. I want to get through that so I can get to the fun part, which is really running, making changes, making it faster, feeling really comfortable. It was just a day of anticipation, a level of not knowing.

“There’s been a lot of anticipation on this day for me, not only the years after I left. And thinking about it, because I really did try to do it the second year I’d been gone, until two managers said that people questioned my commitment in it in NASCAR, so I didn’t do it. I really did believe that I was never going to do it again. After that point I was like, the further I get away from it, the more I don’t want to do it.

But there was no wavering on the decision last year to do it. Once I thought of it, I was like, ‘Yes, yes, that’s what I’m going to do.’ So it’s been since fall of last year thinking about, ‘What the hell is it going to feel like?’ So now I know.”

Competing as an Indy 500 rookie for team-owner Bobby Rahal in 2005, Patrick started fourth and became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 en route to recording a fourth-place finish behind first-time winner Dan Wheldon. Patrick still holds the record for highest finish by a woman competitor, third in 2009.

Her crossover marketing appeal eventually steered Patrick to NASCAR, a period that peaked with a pole-winning lap for the 2013 season-opening Daytona 500. Patrick became the first woman to qualify P1 in NASCAR’s premier national touring series and also posted the best-ever finish by a woman in “The Great American Race” in eighth. Patrick’s Cup career wound down amid turmoil in 2017, however, when she lost of her primary sponsor and officially was released from driving the No. 10 Ford Fusion by Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end.

The 36-year-old admitted she’s still not comfortable in INDYCAR’s new-for-2018 universal aerodynamic chassis, citing how heavy the wheel without power steering felt despite her noted fitness routine.

“The car, it just felt very hard to drive,” Patrick said. “The weight of the wheel was very heavy for me. So I don’t know what the heck I’ve been doing because I feel a lot stronger than when I was here before. You have to see the videos, I crushed it like crazy. I can pick some weight up. But I did not feel very strong out there.

“But I stayed out and I did all those 20 laps to complete it all. It felt fine. Actually felt fairly comfortable at that point in time for the level of discomfort with the way the wheel felt, things like that, and with the amount of front aero we took out of it to lighten the wheel up for me.”

Patrick anticipated resolving some of those issues during a manufacturer test for Chevrolet and Honda on Wednesday at IMS, the final on-track availability on the oval prior to Indy 500 practice.

“My old engineer Matt (Barnes) ran me today,” Patrick said. “He made it easier to drive. It’s still not by any means where I want it, but it was enough that we could complete today.”

Patrick attributed her previous open-wheel successes and comfort level at IMS to a couple of items. “I thought about it when I was out there,” Patrick said. “There were times where I was driving off the belief that everything was so locked-down for me that nothing can really go wrong with the back of the car, just drive through it. I thought to myself, I feel like I’ve built my career on trusting my ass. I think that’s very important here at Indy, is to not drive beyond what you feel is possible with the car because it will bite you. Your gut is usually right. The feel of your butt is right.

The other thing is just the level of respect for the facility itself, kind of feeling like it’s got its own heartbeat, just got to respect it.”

To that end, Patrick hopes to be “just flat-out and comfortable” by the end of Wednesday’s sessions.

“I think that once I’m flat-out the whole way around, I’m feeling comfortable, feeling the changes, you can really work from there,” Patrick said. “Definitely for me I forget that it’s not really Indy yet, it’s just a test, which was supposed to happen a month ago. It was obviously terrible weather so we didn’t run a month ago. But this is just a test. We’ll be back again in two weeks and that’s when it really starts. There’s many days before qualifying.

I feel like tomorrow just a smooth day where I get flat-out and feel the changes, have good information leading into two weeks from now where we really are going to have to get down to business.”

Howard used Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda to complete his refresher in fast fashion. “Today was excellent,” said Howard, seeking to make his third Indy 500 start. “I’m really happy, the car feels better than it did last year, which is great. I’m really confident _ certainly no complaints. I’m looking forward to a good Month of May.”

Karam is chasing his fifth straight Indy 500 start, driving a fourth time for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. The 23-year-old Pennsylvanian finished his refresher as the afternoon session ended.

“This is most comfortable I have been here at Indy in the very first day of running,” said Karam, driving the No. 24 WIX Filters DRR Chevrolet. “Usually, the cars don’t feel the best after a refresher day, but this is the best I have ever felt after Day 1. The car felt good coming through the refresher speeds and even better when we added speed.”

The Indianapolis 500 rookies had the first three hours of the day to complete their programs. Kaiser, driving the No. 32 NFP/Juncos Racing Chevrolet, breezed through his in less than 30 minutes. “I went out, felt comfortable, we knocked out the laps,” said Kaiser, who moved up to the Verizon IndyCar Series this season after winning the 2017 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship. “No hiccups on anything, which is exactly what you want on a day like this.”

Wickens also resorted to using Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 car to finish rookie orientation after his No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda suffered gearbox issues after the first phase. Undeterred, the Canadian posted the fastest lap of the day at 220.111 mph.

“We had to scramble a little bit to get James’ car ready because it wasn’t scheduled to be going on track, so we had to do some quick fixes and get everything ready to go,” said Wickens, who has a pair of top-four finishes in the first four races this season. “It wasn’t ideal because we didn’t really do a seat-fit for me in his car. Apart from the seat going in, everything was more ‘get on with it, get the orientation done.’ We were actually a little pressed for time to get all the phases through in the time allocation.”

Leist already is a winner on the IMS oval, taking the checkered flag last year in the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race. The 19-year-old Brazilian needed less than an hour to run through his rookie phases in the No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet.

“The feeling was not that much different than Indy Lights,” Leist said. “The Indy Lights cars have less downforce and go 20 mph slower in the straights, but the feeling is pretty much the same. This car has more downforce so you feel a little more comfortable with the speed, so it was not a big deal for me.”

Chevrolet and Honda will conduct manufacturer testing Wednesday in a session involving 12 drivers. The focus then turns to the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road-course, an event which runs May 11-12. The road-race on May 12 (3:30 p.m. EDT) and the 102nd Indianapolis 500 on May 27 (11 a.m. EDT) both will air live on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. 

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Tuesday’s combined Rookie Orientation Program and veteran refresher results for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 102nd Indianapolis 500 at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway with rank, car number in parenthesis, driver, engine, session, time/speed and total laps completed: 

  1. (5) Robert Wickens-(R), Honda, Practice 1, 00:40.8884-seconds/220.111 mph, 37
  2. (4) Matheus Leist-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 1, 00:40.8956/220.073, 71
  3. (5) Jay Howard, Honda, Practice 2, 00:40.9747/219.648, 61
  4. (32) Kyle Kaiser-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 1, 00:41.0078/219.470, 74
  5. (24) Sage Karam, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 00:41.1710/218.600, 45
  6. (13) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 00:41.1900/218.500, 52
  7. (6) Robert Wickens-(R), Honda, Practice 1, 00:42.7340/210.605, 15

Total Laps for Combined Sessions _ 355

Note  _ All cars use the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series Dallara IR-12 universal aero chassis with Chevrolet or Honda twin-turbocharged V-6 engines and Firestone Firehawk tires.

(R) _ Denotes Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 2 2018
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