Questions About Her Future Follow Danica To Japan

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 17 2009
Danica Patrick was a hot topic on her return to the scene of her only IndyCar victory. (Photo by Ron McQueeney of the IRL)

Danica Patrick was a hot topic on her return to the scene of her only IndyCar victory. (Photo by Ron McQueeney of the IRL)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Motegi, Japan – Danica Patrick took the racing world by storm on a rainy spring weekend at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit last year when she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race. In this year’s return of the series to the Japanese track on a balmy September weekend, there’s doubt about Patrick’s return next year – or her chances of winning this year.

The favorites on intermediate speedways are the same two teams wrestling over the championship – Penske Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. The performance of the Andretti Green Racing team where Patrick is one of three drivers, has been lacking enough that team owner Michael Andretti has re-organized as part of his effort to sign Patrick to a new contract, a deal that is still not confirmed.

“We haven’t won a race this year and that’s very different for us,” said Patrick, whose fifth place in the points is the best among teammates Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti. “We’ve struggled over all. But I don’t think there’s any reason why we can’t come here and win this weekend.”

In the midst of negotiations which could include both a deal with AGR and selected races in the Nationwide Series of NASCAR in 2010, Patrick declined to confirm whether she’d be back in an IndyCar in Japan next year. That leaves open the possibility she will run NASCAR full time. “You’ll know when I tell you,” she said tersely when asked during a media conference packed with Japanese and American reporters.

Andretti said recently he expected to sign Patrick to his team for next year. But NASCAR team owner Tony Stewart has said subsequently that he expects Patrick to compete in the Nationwide Series next season after a second meeting with the driver at Stewart-Haas Racing.

The loss of Patrick and her extraordinary name recognition to NASCAR would be a major blow to the IndyCar series.

As for this year’s Motegi round, the teams and cars will get on the track for the first time for the 200-lap, 300-mile race on Friday morning. “I hope the cars will come off the truck fast (Friday) and we’ll just maintain that,” said Patrick.

She won last year by saving fuel while maintaining a sufficient pace to beat the rapidly closing Helio Castroneves of Penkse Racing. That victory plus this year’s consistent points season have gained Patrick a lot of respect within the Indy Racing League.

Beyond her performance and long recognized media drawing power, Patrick is now regarded in the paddock as more focused and less likely to blame other drivers for problems. Patrick is not considered one of the top five drivers whose talent enables her to win in the IRL on any race weekend, but she’s seen as a driver who’s tough to beat on days when she’s running well.

There’s no doubt Patrick runs well on the egg-shaped 1.5-mile oval located on a mountain top north of Tokyo. She started on the front row her rookie season in April of 2005, led twice for 32 laps and finished fourth. She’s finished no worse than 11th in four races.

“I must just know what I want out of the car to be able to do well here,” she said. “It’s not just simple, straight forward and easy. I think that shows in other places that I do well like short ovals and Indy and places like that. It’s important in these places to be in a car that you’re comfortable in.”

The trip through turns 3 and 4 is faster due to a longer radius than the tighter Turns 1 and 2. “Around a place like this 3 and 4 is the only spot that matters here,” she said. “One and two are the easy ones. You pace yourself in 3 and 4 to get up to flat out.”

Though short-winded on the subject of next season, Patrick politely repeats her answer to the eternal question about winning on fuel mileage rather than flat-out pace last year.

“Any race you go to you have to be running well to win the race,” she said. “There’s been a lot of people who’ve won a race on strategy,” she continued. “I’ve put myself in position in a lot of places to win on strategy and I’ve lost it. Everybody wants their win to be dramatic, you know a pass for the lead or lapping second place.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 17 2009