IRL: Nashville: Rahal Letterman Racing preview

RAHAL LETTERMAN TRIO OPTIMISTIC HEADING TO NASHVILLE HILLIARD, Ohio - The up and down season of Rahal Letterman Racing rolls into Nashville this week for the Firestone Indy 200 at the Nashville Speedway. RLR's driver trio Buddy Rice, Danica ...

RAHAL LETTERMAN TRIO OPTIMISTIC HEADING TO NASHVILLE

HILLIARD, Ohio - The up and down season of Rahal Letterman Racing rolls into Nashville this week for the Firestone Indy 200 at the Nashville Speedway. RLR's driver trio Buddy Rice, Danica Patrick and rookie Jeff Simmons are optimistic heading to the 1.3-mile concrete oval.

Three races ago RLR made the switch to the Dallara chassis and thus joining the rest of the IRL IndyCar Series in running the chassis that has won 22 of the last 25 races. The chassis switch was a necessitate step backwards to take a step forward. The team, without the benefit of off season testing has had to come to grips with the new cars all while running under the constraints of a race weekend. To say it has been a challenge might be an understatement.

"It is tough to see all the progress we are making with the chassis," said Danica Patrick, the 2005 IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year. "As we learn something so do the other teams. I think at the end of the year it will be easier to judge just how far we have come since Texas."

"We knew the switch would set us back temporarily, but despite the hardship it is still the right thing to do," said Buddy Rice the 2004 Indy 500 champion. "We had pretty much tapped out the Panoz chassis and there was only so much further you could go. We are getting closer to the leaders with the new Dallara chassis and Nashville could be a good track for us. Of course, we are still learning with these cars and it is an on-going process throughout the season with these new cars."

"A chassis change mid-season created a lot of work at all levels for the team, but I think top to bottom the team has done a tremendous job," said Jeff Simmons who claimed his first IndyCar top-ten result in the Dallara at Kansas. "There are things you just can't learn about the car until you are on track. The restrictions on in season testing has slowed our progress, but I think we are improving."

Nashville represents a track RLR has had some success at. Buddy Rice (pole) and Vitor Meira swept the front row for RLR in 2004. Rice finished sixth and Meira 12th. Last season Danica Patrick started on the front row at Nashville and led 11 laps en route to a seventh place finish.

"The Nashville track is very unique because it is an all-concrete surface," said Rice. "That can be rough on the tires since the surface is pretty abrasive. But Firestone does a great job with the tires and we really haven't had any trouble with the tire wear at Nashville. I was close to winning the race in 2004 and ran into trouble with Dan (Wheldon) in turn one late in the race. We had to change the front wing and came back to finish sixth or so. Vitor (Meira) and I were on the front row for Rahal Letterman Racing and that was special because that was the first time for the team in the IRL. Vitor had a great car that day and he had trouble in the pits and we led something like 50 laps (52) before the trouble with Dan. That was one that got away."

Nashville will be the third and final night race of the 2006 season. "I like the night races," said Patrick. "There just seems to be a buzz around them. Other than the cooler temps as a driver you can't really tell a difference because it is like daylight out there."

Although Simmons will make his IndyCar Series debut at Nashville, he has experience in the Indy Pro Series on the concrete surface. "It is fun to drive at Nashville," said Simmons. "I was second last year in the IPS race and I am looking forward to my first IndyCar Series race on that track. With the concrete surface, the traction is different than an asphalt surface. The rubber builds up on the track and it can get slippery at times when the heat get into the surface. But overall, the Nashville track is one that I like. We are starting the race a couple of hours later this year and the track should be a little cooler and the racing should be very exciting."

DANICA PATRICK'S 'LA STORY'

If it is mid-July then it is time for the annual ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. For the second straight year Danica Patrick was asked to present an award at the ESPY's. Patrick and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges presented the Best Play Big Game which went to USC and Texas for the 2006 Rose Bowl.

"This was my second ESPY Awards, and I was so excited to be going," said Patrick. "For athletes this is our Oscar's or Grammy's and it is one of the highlights of the year. I think the coolest thing is about the ESPY's is seeing all the other great athletes who are so successful in their sports. It is a real honor to be invited and to present is a thrill."

Patrick was in LA for two busy days of media and ESPY functions. She taped a segment for Jimmy Kimmel Live which will air on Friday night and she appeared on the Adam Corolla morning show on FREE 97.1. In addition she did numerous red carpet interviews at the ESPN The Magazine Party and at the ESPY's.

ILL LUCK PLAGUES BUDDY RICE'S SEASON

Buddy Rice's season has been a roller coaster affair. Rice does posses both of RLR's top-five results this season (Watkins & Motegi), but he also has four DNF's. For Rice it has been a case of what can go wrong will. At Kansas he was running in the top-eight and looking for a strong finish when he spun on a restart and hit the wall.

"I guess we are going to have to make our own luck," said Rice. "It seems like every time we have built a little momentum something comes along to break that momentum and send us backwards. All we can do is continue to approach every race like the championship is on the line and push to win. One of these week's we will get a break and things will go our way."

Rice and RLR have not won a race since Michigan in 2004. The nearly two year old streak stands at 30 races. The longest drought for RLR since the mid-90s.

DANICA EYES HER FIRST INDYCAR WIN

Danica Patrick faces the same question at every stop along the IRL IndyCar Series schedule. When do you think you will win your first race? For Patrick who will make her 25th IndyCar Series start Saturday night, the question has come to represent what she feels is the hopes of her fans.

"Nobody puts higher expectations on my performance, than I do," said Patrick. "I have always been my harshest critic and nobody wants to win more than I. In the grand scheme of things I am still very early in my IndyCar career. On the average it takes a driver 33 races to earn their first win and that takes me into next season. Every week I am doing the best I can and trying to maximize what I can get out of the car. Up until Texas we had finished in the top-eight at every race. The change to the Dallara has presented some new challenges, but it is the right move for the long term. We had maximized what we could get out of the Panoz."

JEFF SIMMONS GAINING EXPERIENCE

Jeff Simmons collected his first top-ten result as an IndyCar Series driver with a tenth place finish at Kansas. It marked the first time this season that Simmons has topped the RLR driver results.

Simmons will run his first IndyCar Series race at Nashville, but not his first race. A veteran of three Indy Pro Series events at Nashville, Simmons finished second last year at Nashville.

"As a rookie you learn to lean on your teammates and the engineers, but with the chassis change we are all in essence rookies," said Simmons. "I was really proud of the top-ten at Kansas. I don't want to settle for top-ten results, but this shows we are making progress."

-Rahal Letterman Racing

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Buddy Rice , Jeff Simmons , Danica Patrick , Vitor Meira