IRL: Nashville: Rahal Letterman Racing Track Talk

Rahal Letterman Racing Track Talk: Patrick crafting stellar rookie season in IndyCar HILLIARD, Ohio -- Danica Patrick's rookie campaign for Rahal Letterman Racing in the IRL IndyCar Series has been pretty typical for an IndyCar Series rookie.

Rahal Letterman Racing Track Talk: Patrick crafting stellar rookie season in IndyCar

HILLIARD, Ohio -- Danica Patrick's rookie campaign for Rahal Letterman Racing in the IRL IndyCar Series has been pretty typical for an IndyCar Series rookie. Oh sure there has been a fair amount of attention, a certifiable media circus that has grown its own persona, Danica Mania, and with the media attention the burgeoning fan base, but on the track Patrick's rookie year is pretty much par for the course.

Midway through the 2005 season Patrick is the leader in the Bombardier IRL IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year. Her chief rookie rivals, Ryan Briscoe and Tomas Enge have also felt the roller coaster of a rookie campaign.

Following her historic fourth place finish at Indianapolis in the No. 16 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Honda/Panoz/Firestone, much has been written about the rookie sensation's need to win a race to justify the intense media coverage. The expectation is that she will shed the rookie label and begin posting results that often elude a veteran of the sport.

Patrick is vying to become just the fourth true rookie in the IndyCar Series history to win a race in their first season. Only once in the last seven seasons has a true IndyCar rookie (Tomas Scheckter) posted a victory in their inaugural season and it has happened only three times in the League's history.

"There is nothing that I want to do any more than win, I promise you that," said Patrick. "It's my first year and I'm learning a lot. Every track I go to is a new track. Everybody has a certain learning curve. Everybody has a certain amount they have to digest and become comfortable and current with and you have to have good instincts for everything. Everything on track has to be just a reflex. I'm learning so many of those things. I can understand how this sort of thing [expectations] happens. When you get so much attention and everything, people seem to think this is what you have to do, you have to win. I don't go out there and say, "Put me in as many newspapers and magazines as you can." It's just what happened. It's just what people wanted to write. I don't feel any more responsibility or any more obligation to do better because of it. My desire to be successful and to win has been the same forever. Just because there's more things written, I don't feel like it's justified in having to do better. I think every athlete at the top level tries as hard as they can all the time.

If history tells us anything we may have to wait until next season to see Patrick's initial IndyCar Series win. Twelve of the 22 drivers who took the green flag at Kansas in the IndyCar Series have won an IndyCar or Champ Car race. Of those twelve only three won a race in their first 17 starts, the number of starts that Patrick will make this season in the IRL IndyCar Series. The average number of starts before a driver poster their first win was 33.

Patrick is tenth in points, has posted a top-ten result in four of her last five races and she has registered seven straight running finishes. That total is second only to series points leader Dan Wheldon who has finished every race this season. At Motegi and Indy she collected back-to-back top-five results including the fourth place finish in the Indy 500. Qualifying is where Patrick has shown the most progress quickly. In her first three races her average starting position was 14th. In her last five races the average starting position is sixth. Throw out the Richmond weekend and her average starting spot since Motegi is third.

Patrick has already won the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year and she is vying to become only the second driver in the history of the IRL IndyCar Series to win both the Indy 500 and IndyCar Series top rookie honors.

"At the start of the season I told Danica I didn't care where she finished as long as she finished races this season," said three-time IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal. "On track success has certainly come quicker than I thought it would, and she has done a magnificent job balancing the demands in the race car and the demands on her outside of the car. It has been a long journey for her to get to this point, but in many ways the journey is just beginning. I am very proud of what she has accomplished, but I know the best is still yet to come."

RICE & MEIRA HAVE UNFINISHED BUSINESS AT NASHVILLE

Last year, Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira qualified one-two for the Firestone Indy 200 marking Rahal Letterman Racing's first front row qualifying sweep in the IRL IndyCar Series. That dominance carried over to the race when the green flag dropped, as the RLR duo dominated leading the next 165 laps. Only a length pit stop for Meira and a late race collision for Rice spoiled a Rahal Letterman victory lane celebration at Nashville in 2004.

Meira, who is still seeking his initial IRL victory, took the lead at the start and held the point for the first 113 laps but dropped to 15th due to a long pit stop. The popular Brazilian then put on one of the most spectacular drives of the 2004 season when he took the No. 17 Honda-powered machine to the Top Five in just three laps. Unfortunately, Meira's charge was derailed late in the race when he battled gearbox troubles. Vitor had to settle for 12th at the checkered flag.

"I feel that we had the car to win last year at Nashville," said Meira, currently sixth in IndyCar points. "Buddy and I seemed to be the fastest in the field., but problems kept us from the winner's circle. I can't wait to get back to Nashville and show that kind of speed again. This is a tough series and the competition will be very tough, but I feel we'll have a good chance to win this time."

Rice, the 2004 Indy 500 champion, picked up the pace after Meira's pit stop problem last year at Nashville and held a seven-second advantage late in the 200-lap race. Rice, who dominated the contest for 52 laps, led before a late race caution period forced the leaders into the pits for the final time. Rice's crew made a routine fuel and four tire stop while Dan Wheldon took on fuel only. On the restart on lap 166, Wheldon led Rice into the first turn. Rice dove underneath Wheldon for the pass for the lead but the two cars collided. The collision broke Rice's car front wing and he was forced to return to the pits for repairs.

Rice, who posted one of his five 2004 pole positions at Nashville, came back from 13th to sixth, but ran out of time for a charge to the front.

"I think Vitor and I had the strongest cars, but the best cars don't always win," said Rice, a three-time winner in 2004. "I believe we are certainly due for a break and hopefully a win at Nashville after last year's race. We led for 165 laps and came out of there with a sixth and 12th place cars. Not what we wanted that night. I really like to race at night at Nashville and we should be right in the hunt again. The concrete surface is different from what we normally race on and the team has to carefully watch the conditions on a track like that one. But we feel good about coming back to Nashville. If we have all of our ducks in row, the Rahal Letterman team should be at the front of the field night. We had the top three qualifying spots at Kansas last week and I can easily see us doing that again."

RAHAL LETTERMAN RACING NOTABLES. . .

Vitor Meira has posted the top Rahal Letterman result in six of the eight races this season. . .The three Rahal Letterman drivers have combined to lead 107 laps this season led by Danica Patrick with 51. RLR cars have led in five of the eight races. . .Rahal Letterman Racing has won at least once race every season since 1998. That seven year streak is the second longest such streak in North American open-wheel racing. . .Nashville in 2004 is one of four times RLR has swept the front row in qualifying in an event. RLR, then known as Team Rahal swept the front row at Long Beach in 1998 with Bryan Herta winning the pole and Bobby Rahal on the outside of Row 1. Kenny Brack took the pole at Michigan in 2001 with Max Papis on the outside of Row 1. Rice and Meira swept Row 1 last year Nashville and Danica Patrick and Buddy Rice swept the front row at Kansas two weeks ago. . .Patrick is currently the leader in the Bombardier Rookie of the Year competition. Patrick is vying to become the second RLR driver in the team's history to win Rookie of the Year honors. Kenny Brack captured the CART Rookie of the Year honors in 2000. . .Although she is a rookie, Danica Patrick is actually the senior member of the RLR driving trio in terms of starts with the team. Patrick will make her 38th start this weekend when she takes the green flag at Nashville, while Buddy Rice will make his 24th RLR start and Vitor Meira his 23rd start. Bobby Rahal is the career leader in starts for RLR with 116 starts. . ..After eight rounds of the 2005 season Vitor Meira (205 points) leads his teammates Danica Patrick (171 points) and Buddy Rice (136 points) in the Hilliard, Ohio Mayor's Cup Standings. . .Danica Patrick is nominated for an ESPY Award for Best Breakthrough Performance on this weeks ESPY Awards Show. Patrick is vying with 2004 Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat for the honor. The ESPY Awards are Wednesday night in Los Angeles and will be broadcast Sunday July 17 at 9:00 pm EDT. . .Meira turned the both the fastest race lap (lap 146, 198.084 m.p.h.) and the fastest leading lap (lap 59, 197.806 m.p.h.) last year at Nashville.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Enge , Max Papis , Bobby Rahal , Bryan Herta , Kenny Brack , Dan Wheldon , Buddy Rice , Ryan Briscoe , Danica Patrick , Vitor Meira