Danica Hits The Wall And Then The Road

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 28 2018

Danica Patrick gave one last reluctant interview after wrecking in her final Indy 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – Life after racing began for Danica Patrick with a short-and-snarky news conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway after she crashed out of Sunday’s 102nd Indianapolis 500, the place and the race that launched “Danicamania” 13 years ago.

Rather than come full-circle at the checkered flag on the 2.5-mile oval, Patrick’s race ground to a halt on Lap 68 of the scheduled 200 when the rear end of her bright green No. 13 Chevrolet broke loose at approximately 220 mph exiting Turn 2. The car made hard contact with the Speedway’s SAFER Barrier wall on the left side pod, pancaking the front suspension and spewing debris.

Patrick’s mother, Bev, placed a hand on her head in disbelief along pit road as the crash scene was replayed on the track’s monitors.

Sporadic applause broke out from the grandstands as Patrick was transported to the track’s infield medical center. She was uninjured but the result was a huge letdown for Patrick, who became a crossover marketing celebrity when she started and finished fourth as a rookie in the 2005 Indy 500. Patrick also led 19 laps in that race _ the first woman to lead an Indy 500 _ en route to Rookie of the Year honors. And her third-place result here in 2009 remains the highest by a woman in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Patrick, who started seventh and officially finished 30th in the 33-car field after completing 67 laps, admittedly was a reluctant participant in a post-race news conference conducted by the Verizon IndyCar Series’ communications staff.  But one last time, she was center stage in the IMS media center on the fourth floor of the Pagoda.

The session began with a moderator thanking Patrick for making an appearance.

“I didn’t really want to,” Patrick said.

Danica Patrick got the hook at Indy on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

The moderator then awkwardly asked her to give her impressions of the last year.

“The last year?” Patrick asked, rhetorically.

“This year of running The Double,” the moderator said, a reference to her final NASCAR Cup Series start at the Daytona 500 in February and this race.

“All right. Let me just talk,” Patrick said.

“Definitely not a great ending,” said Patrick, 36, who wrapped up the NASCAR portion of her career on Feb. 18 with a 35th-place/DNF result in the season-opening Daytona 500, stock car racing’s Super Bowl. “I kind of said before I came here that if it’s (Indy 500) a complete disaster _ ‘complete’ like not in the ballpark at all, look silly _ then people may remember that. And if I win, people will remember that. But probably anything in-between might just be a little part of a big story. So I kind of feel like that’s how it is, you know?

“I’m appreciative for all the fans, for GoDaddy, for Ed Carpenter Racing for giving me a good car. Today was a rough day. A little bit of it was OK, a lot of it was tough to drive.”

At that point, Patrick was interrupted by a feed from ABC’s live (and final) telecast over the PA system.  Visibly perturbed, Patrick said, “Take my mic away, I’ll leave,” Patrick said, seated at a long dais at which all post-race interviews are conducted. “I don’t even want to be here because I’m pretty sad. I guess I’ll stop there.

“I will say, though, for sure I’m very grateful for everybody for being able to finish it up like I wanted to. It still was a lot of great moments this month, a lot of great moments this year.”

Lap 68 was not one of them and turned out to be the same fate suffered by three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske in Turn 4 on Lap 146 and 2013 race champ Tony Kanaan of AJ Foyt Racing in Turn 2 on Lap 189. As predicted, the combination of INDYCAR’s new-for-2018 universal chassis aero kit featuring less downforce and a hot-and-slick racetrack proved a handling handful.

 “I’m not really sure what happened. It just seemed to come around,” Patrick said after exiting the infield medical center. “It seemed pretty late off the corner. They said they looked back at the data and there was a little lift in the middle (of the short chute between Turns 1 and 2), a little understeer and back to it and just swung. I do feel like it was pretty unexpected. But, on the other hand, the car was a little bit positive today and was turning a bit more than I wanted it to, so just having to chase it a lot. Turn 2 did seem a little bit more edgy than some of the other corners.

“I think it just goes to show that these Indy cars are tough to drive. Today was really disappointing for what we were hoping for and what you want for your last race. I’m grateful for all of it.

“I wish I could have finished stronger. I wouldn’t want to end it any year that way. Being the last one makes it worse. I did have some good moments here this month and I won’t forget that either and I won’t forget the fans.”

Patrick was a 23-year-old rookie on May 29, 2005 and driving the No. 16 Panoz/Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Racing when she planted the seeds of “Danicamania.” The fans stood and went wild on a restart on Lap 190 when leader Dan Wheldon was out-accelerated by Patrick for the point as the race wound down. Earlier, on Lap 56 during a round of pit stops, Danica had become the first female to lead the Indy 500. This time, she held the lead through Lap 193 before being re-passed by the Englishman en route to the first of his two Indy 500 wins.

After 27 years, Janet Guthries’s ninth-place finish in the 1978 race no longer stood as the highest finish by a woman.

Danica’s fourth-place result in ’05 basically overshadowed Wheldon’s win and marked her as a mainstream superstar. By time the series reached Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth two weeks later, Wheldon was wearing a t-shirt that read, “Actually, I won the Indy 500.” The entire race week was ginned-up as a “Dan vs. Danica” tale of the tape boxing match, courtesy of TMS President Eddie Gossage.

Patrick wasn’t done making history, as her victory on the Twin Ring Motegi oval in Japan in April 2008 marked her as the first woman to win a major closed-course auto racing event. It proved to be her only open-wheel win, while the NASCAR Cup portion of her career was highlighted by capturing pole position for the 2013 Daytona 500 at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.

But like A.J. Foyt Jr., first four-time winner of the Indy 500, Patrick acknowledged this was the event that made her career. “It’s an entire career, but what really launched it is this,” Patrick said. “I’ve had a lot of good fortune here and still had some this month. It just didn’t come on race day.

“I was definitely nervous. But I found myself most of the time on the grid feeling confused. What part of pre-race we were in? I was like, ‘I don’t remember this. Where are the taps (in honor of Memorial Day). When is the anthem?’ I had all my people around me, so I was in good spirits.”

Beyond a July commitment that will see her become the first woman to host the televised ESPY Awards for sports, Patrick’s retirement plans largely remain unscripted.

“I’m thinking I’m going to have plenty of time to write a cookbook in Green Bay,“ Patrick said pre-race, alluding to boyfriend Aaron Rodgers, star quarterback of the NFL’s Packers. “I will say, though, for sure I’m very grateful for everybody and for being able to finish up like I wanted to. It still was a lot of great moments this month, a lot of great moments this year.”

As her final racing-related news conference wrapped up, Patrick offered a spoonful of sugar to her “frenemies’ in the national media.

“Thank you, guys. Appreciate everything,” Patrick said. “I’ll miss you, most of the time. Maybe you’ll miss me just a little. Thanks, guys.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 28 2018
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