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IndyCar driver Patrick rides out highs and lows

Times Staff Writer

SONOMA, Calif. -- Like much of her young career, Danica Patrick’s season this year has been one of peaks and valleys -- even as her enormous popularity remains intact.

Patrick, 26, shot to stardom by nearly winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie driver in 2005 but then remained winless for nearly three years.

She finally earned her first IndyCar Series win in April -- in her 50th start -- when a fuel-mileage gamble put her in Victory Lane at Motegi, Japan, making her the first woman to win a major open-wheel race.

Another round of “Danicamania” ensued and Patrick landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, where she also appeared earlier in the year in a white bikini as part of the magazine’s swimsuit edition.

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All of which delighted the Indy Racing League, the series’ sanctioning body that had just absorbed the Champ Car World Series, reuniting U.S. open-wheel racing after a 12-year split.

But Patrick, who drives the No. 7 car for Andretti Green Racing, often has struggled since her victory. It’s a situation she hopes to reverse Sunday in the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at the Infineon Raceway road course.

The race’s defending champion is Scott Dixon, the toast of IndyCar racing this year with six wins and the series point lead for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

“2008 has been an up and down year,” Patrick said at Infineon on Thursday. “It’s been interesting, it’s been exciting, it’s been frustrating.

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“At the end of the day what I will remember from this year is that I did win my first race so that’s always going to be a good memory to have.”

Patrick’s best finish at Infineon, in three starts, was a sixth a year ago. Through the first 14 races of this season, Patrick has only one other top-five finish besides her win in Japan -- a fifth in Nashville -- and she is sixth in the IndyCar series point standings.

Patrick has failed to finish in the top 10 in four of the last five races, which included an 11th-place finish at Kentucky, an 18th at Edmonton and a 12th at Mid-Ohio.

This year’s Indy 500 also proved disappointing when Patrick had a late-race collision with Ryan Briscoe as they drove down pit lane.

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That prompted an angry Patrick, at 5-foot-2 and 100 pounds, to climb out of her car and start walking down pit lane toward Briscoe until a security official intercepted her.

Patrick’s season has been marked by run-ins with other drivers as well.

Dixon called her “a menace” for getting in his way during a race at Iowa Speedway in June. Last month, after practice for the Mid-Ohio race, Patrick also had an argument with Milka Duno, another female driver in the IndyCar series who twice threw a towel at Patrick. Video clips of their squabble were quickly posted on YouTube.

Patrick has defended her driving style as appropriately aggressive, and two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves has says he respects Patrick’s driving ability as much as any competitor’s.

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“We’re all out here with a job to do, and with emotions, but I do try to listen to my mom when she tells me to always be a lady,” Patrick said.

“So I balance the two as best as I can.”

No matter how Patrick fares on the track, she remains the series’ most popular driver and the sport’s focal point.

She has been the subject of countless media interviews and made numerous TV appearances. She co-wrote her autobiography, “Danica, Crossing the Line,” that has a cover photo of her wearing a bare-shouldered evening dress while holding a race helmet.

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“I like to look pretty and I like to look sexy and I like to look like a girl but then I’m very tough at the track, so I think that contrast is kind of cool,” she once told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Patrick said Thursday that she’s also fully aware of her high profile, on her good days and bad.

“When I’m at a race track, the cameras are rolling and there are many things that become a story because I’ve been fortunate to have people following me since very early in my IndyCar career,” she said.

“It’s like when you tune into a golf game . . . you want to know how Tiger’s doing. I just have to be conscious of that. I just have to be aware that people are always watching and especially young people are watching.”

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Patrick was born in Beloit, Wis., and grew up in Illinois. After her younger sister Brooke wanted to race go-karts in the early 1990s, Patrick followed suit and went on to win several national kart titles.

She moved to England at 16 to burnish her racing skills in series designed to develop young open-wheel racers, then caught the eye of Bobby Rahal, a former Indy 500 winner and co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing, who brought her to the IndyCar Series in 2005.

That same year, Patrick married physical therapist Paul Hospenthal, and in 2007 she moved to the Andretti Green team.

Now Patrick is pursuing her second win, although the IndyCar-Champ Car merger means she’s competing against several additional drivers this season.

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“It’s definitely made it a lot tougher, but there’s nothing wrong with that,” she said. “Everything that you do in your life, whether it’s in your job or out of your job, helps you become the person that you are and you learn from it.

“The moments that have been tough this year I’ve learned from and grown from,” Patrick said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Danica Patrick’s track record

Driving record of Danica Patrick, above, including top five

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finishes (T5), and final driver standing (ST); *Through 14 races:

*--* YEAR NOTABLE RACES T5 ST 2008* Won first race, at Motegi, Japan 2 6 2007 Best finish was second at Belle Isle 4 7 2006 Best finish was fourth at Nashville 2 9 2005 Nearly won Indianapolis 500, selected rookie of the 2 12 year *--*

2007

Seventh in IndyCar Series standings in first season with Andretti Green Racing.

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Four top-five finishes; 11 top-10 finishes; best finish of second at Belle Isle.

Runner-up finish at Belle Isle matched best finish by a female driver in the

IndyCar Series (Sarah Fisher, Homestead-Miami 2001).

Qualified on the front row at Mid-Ohio and Infineon.

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Voted Indy DownForce most popular driver for third consecutive season.

2006

Finished ninth in IndyCar Series standings for Rahal Letterman Racing.

Two top-five, eight top-10 finishes; best fourth (Nashville and Milwaukee).

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Started 10th and finished eighth in Indianapolis 500.

Voted Indy DownForce most popular driver for second consecutive season.

2005

Won Bombardier rookie of the year award after finishing 12th in IndyCar Series

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standings for Rahal Letterman Racing.

Two top-five, seven top-10 finishes; best fourth (Motegi and Indianapolis).

Three pole positions (Kansas, Kentucky, Chicagoland) to tie Tomas Scheckter’s

rookie record for pole positions in a season.

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Started and finished fourth at 89th Indianapolis 500 and earned Chase rookie

of year honors. The highest starting and finishing position for a female driver in the event’s history. Led 19 laps, the first woman to lead at Indianapolis.

2004

Third in Toyota Atlantic series standings driving for Rahal Letterman Racing.

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First female to lead in points when she led the standings after the Portland race.

Ten top-five finishes in 12 races, including a best finish of second at Portland.

First career pole position at Portland to become first female driver to win a

Toyota Atlantic series pole position.

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2003

Sixth in Toyota Atlantic series standings driving for Team Rahal.

Five top-five finishes, including best finish of second at Miami.

First female driver in series to finish on podium with third at Monterrey, Mexico.

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2002

Won pole, pro division of Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race at Long Beach Grand Prix.

Signed with Team Rahal, named driver for 2003 Toyota Atlantic series program.

In five Barber Dodge Pro Series events; best finish fourth (Vancouver).

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2001

Competed in British Zetek Formula Ford Championship.

Earned Gorsline scholarship award, given to top upcoming road-racing driver.

2000

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Competed in British Zetek Formula Ford Championship for Andy Welch and

European Formula Ford Series for Haywood Racing.

Second at Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, England; highest finish

by an American in the event.

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1999

Finished ninth in British Formula Vauxhall Championship.

1998

Made European debut in Formula Vauxhall Winter Series.

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In limited karting schedule while attending Formula Ford Racing School.

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Source: IndyCar Series

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GRAND PRIX OF SONOMA

Where: Infineon Raceway

Distance: 184 miles, 80 laps

Qualifying: Saturday, 1:15 p.m.

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Race: Sunday, 2:30 p.m.,

ESPN2


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