Danica Patrick is back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with something she hasn’t had since she rocked the racing world by almost winning the Indy 500 as a rookie in 2005.
“Last year was definitely like, ‘Go out there and do the best you can, and bring it home [in one piece].’ We really did not feel like we had a shot at all,” she said while preparing for Sunday’s 91st running of the 500.
Last year she did a little acting for her public.
“I probably made the mistake of talking about it, saying I wanted to win, of course,” she said.
“Really, what I should have said was, ‘Look, I don’t have a chance. I had a better chance last year as a rookie than I do now. And there’s nothing I can do about it. Nothing. So get off my back.’ ”
“If she can get the car right for herself, she’s going to be a real factor on race day,” said her new boss, team co-owner Michael Andretti.
“She’s right there; she’s a force to be reckoned with,” said Indy legend Mario Andretti, Michael’s father, still an astute and hard-eyed observer here.
So the edge was back in her tone, the urgency back in her manner as she sat in the drivers’ locker room of Andretti Green Racing in Gasoline Alley.
“I’m faster now; I’ve got teammates I can look to for answers and setups and fun,” said Patrick, a veteran now at 25. “So it’s a much, much better situation now. Much more comfortable. Much more support.”
AGR doesn’t have the speed of the dominant Indy Racing League teams, Penske and Ganassi. But it makes up for much with savvy, high-level engineering and strategy.
Teammates Marco and Michael Andretti finished second and third in last year’s 500, and Marco lost by a car length at the finish line to Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr.
Patrick will start eighth Sunday, but Marco will start ninth, exactly where he started last year. Teammates Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti will start second and third.
Last season was largely a lost one for Patrick, IndyCar racing’s most recognizable driver.
Patrick’s Rahal Letterman team struggled, most noticeably at Indy, with outdated Panoz cars rather than the faster, nimbler Dallaras. By the time the team switched, later in the season, it was behind on development.
But she took the heat because, as always in motor racing, it’s the driver who answers to the public, which neither knows nor cares about the technology involved.
“They were slow, for sure,” Patrick said of the cars. “And you can’t say that, right? You can’t throw your people under the bus. As a driver, you’re quick to take the blame because it’s obvious, or because we just will.”
She had the highest finishing Panoz, eighth, and the only one on the lead lap at the finish.
But to the public and the pop media, that didn’t measure up to the dazzling run of ’05, when, even after making mistakes in the pits and on the track, she came back to lead 19 laps late in the race. She became the first woman to lead the 500 before falling back to fourth, still the highest finish by a woman at Indy.
“I don’t know if it was a mistake or not, but the tough part was that I almost won in my fourth and fifth races in IndyCars [at Motegi, Japan, and here], which was jumping the gun a little bit on when it normally would happen.
“So people started asking the questions then. And I guess what I should be happy about is the fact that they’ve stopped asking, ‘When are you going to?’ So it’s not like people are saying, ‘Ah, she can’t do it.’
“It’s just a matter of time; it’s just a matter of situation.... “
“And a matter of having your head shaved when you do win,” Franchitti interrupted, keeping up the relentless promise of how she will truly be initiated by the boisterous AGR team.
Do they really mean to shave her head?
“Yes,” Franchitti said.
“That’s really why I haven’t won yet,” she yelled at Franchitti’s back as he walked away. “Because I value my hair so highly. It’s my only good thing going.”
That was a shot of locker room sarcasm, based on her -- and their -- confidence in her driving ability.
“She’s really a brave girl,” said Michael Andretti. “Out of all the drivers in the paddock, she probably has the most pressure.”
And that feels wonderful to Patrick.
“The fact of the matter is that I always seem to do better when there’s more pressure, and there’s more people watching,” she said.
Still, “when she does win a race, I’ll be more relieved than happy,” said her father, T.J. Patrick, a former short-track racer who tutored his daughter in go-karts, then sent her off to Europe as a teenager to slug it out in the brutal schooling of formula cars.
“I think it’s going to be a huge monkey off her back once she wins that first one,” Michael Andretti said. “And I can’t wait for that to happen.”
Neither can her mischievous teammates, their clippers at the ready for a monumental moment. Never in the history of the Indy 500 has a winner gotten a buzz in Victory Circle.
Ed Hinton covers motor sports for Tribune newspapers.
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A new year
A look at the results from Danica Patrick’s Indy Racing League season to date:
*--* RACE PLACE START LEAD COMP MONEY PTS BONUS PEN Ethanol IndyCar 14 14 0 154 $39,100 16 -- 0 300 at Miami St. Petersburg 8 11 0 100 $49,000 24 0 0 Indy IndyCar 300 at 11 4 0 198 $68,800 19 0 0 Japan Kansas IndyCar 300 7 11 0 198 $45,800 26 0 0
Source: indycar.com Los Angeles Times