Bruce Martin, Special to Motorsport.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Danica Patrick accomplished something in Saturday’s Indiana 250, the Inaugural NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that she never did in seven Indianapolis 500s.
She hit the wall.
That’s right; “America’s Princess of Speed” is discovering that a career with fenders isn’t as easy as it looks, especially at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It’s unfortunate for our day because this is a big race, a big weekend at a track I would have loved to have done well at.
It was here that “Danica Mania” officially began in 2005 when the then-rookie driver came within seven laps of becoming the first female driver ever to win the “World’s Biggest Race” before she was passed by eventual winner Dan Wheldon and went on to finish fourth. But she already had achieved history in that race by becoming the first female driver ever to lead the Indy 500 when her Rahal-Letterman Racing No. 16 Dallara/Honda was in front for 19 laps.
Patrick would finish eighth the next two years in the Indianapolis 500 and had her only DNF at Indy in 2008 when she was involved in a crash on pit lane with Ryan Briscoe. Who could ever forget the sight of Patrick taking off her gloves and marching down pit road in an attempt to kick Briscoe’s ass before INDYCAR Chief of Security Charles Burns intervened and stopped what could have been the most monumental driver fight since Bobby Allison and Cale Yarbrough duked it out in the third turn of Daytona International Speedway after the 1979 Daytona 500.
Patrick rebounded in 2009 to finish third in the Indianapolis 500 which remains the highest finish ever by a female driver in the world’s most prestigious race. She was sixth in the 500 in 2010 and finished 10th in 2011 after leading 10 laps – her first laps led at Indy since her rookie season.
By then, Patrick had become the biggest name in the IZOD IndyCar Series even if her accomplishments of one victory didn’t necessarily equate into the amount of attention that she deserved. But Patrick’s charisma made her a marketing dream and Patrick had become a star because of her celebrity status.
And Saturday’s Indiana 250 was a bit of a homecoming for Patrick as she returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in her NASCAR career.
But that all came to a crashing halt after 38 laps when Reed Sorenson’s Ford spun out in front of Patrick’s Chevrolet going through Turn 1. Patrick attempted to avoid Sorenson by going high but his car shot up the track and pinned Patrick’s car into the wall.
Her race was over and her homecoming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was anything but happy.
“It’s unfortunate for our day because this is a big race, a big weekend at a track I would have loved to have done well at,” Patrick said. “We were just trying to pick them off one by one and Tony Eury Jr. (crew chief) made the car better on that second run and got shuffled back on that restart there. I picked the wrong line. I got in the center of the corner and got pretty close. He was slowing it down pretty much. I was trying to go around him and when I did that he clipped right.
“It’s a bummer. There was plenty of racing left but what do I do? I was getting closer to passing people and still a little tight on the exit. We were pretty darn tight. I just feel really bad. We haven’t been able to get the finishes for the team like everybody deserved.”
In Patrick’s first full season of NASCAR Nationwide Series action she had just one top-10 finish in 18 races and arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ninth in points. During her IZOD IndyCar Series career Patrick set a record for most consecutive races running at the finish. She was never a crasher in IndyCar and the only time she didn’t finish the Indy 500 it was for a pit road accident – not a crash into the wall.
But so far in 2012 Patrick has four DNFs in her 18 starts. She was hoping to end that trend at her favorite race track but instead leaves the Brickyard with a 35th place finish. Sorenson would finish 33rd after running 49 laps.
“I don’t know if she came in too hot or what happened with the car,” Sorenson said. “It’s just too bad that it happened.”
Getting a chance to race in the Nationwide Series at Indianapolis felt like a homecoming in many ways for Patrick.
“Part of me definitely feels it is one of the home tracks for me. I have spent the most amount of time there and especially because my family lives there now,” Patrick said in the days leading up to her Indy return. “The amount of laps that I’ve run around there definitely helped me about the small details about the track surface and things like that. I think it will help for those things. But driving an IndyCar and a stock car on the same track is quite different. Certain things become issues that may not have been issues before and your turn in is different so you may be driving over different bumps. It’s a traditional racing line at Indy so that may be decent. If anything my love for that track and my feelings about it are what is going to make the big difference because it puts me in a good mood right off the bat.”
Patrick will not compete in Sunday’s Brickyard 400 because team owner Tony Stewart put together a limited schedule of tracks that best tests Patrick’s skills in preparation for a full-time Cup effort in 2013.
“It would have been fun or fine to run in the 400 but at the end of the day from the things I’ve heard about how the Cup race goes there it’s very much about track position and things like that,” Patrick said. “I think it’s a better use of my time to go to places that I haven’t been before or are very unique or different and there is a lot of overtaking. From what I’ve heard Indy is a lot about qualifying and track position in the race. I would have definitely done it and I would have smiled about it and hopefully I’ll be doing a lot more of it in the future.”
Saturday’s disappointment certainly won’t temper her favorite memories of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but those came in a different car and a much different race.
“Oh, ’05 -- everything about it,” she said. “It was back in the 3-1/2 week format. It was my first year there. I was fast every day. It was fun and it was all starting there. To almost grab the pole if not for a bobble in Turn 1 and then to have that chance to win at the end of the race was a good feeling. It was definitely my favorite memory.
“I think about it often and I watched the Indy 500 and my whole family lives in Indianapolis now. I love everything about it and I have so many good memories and so many great experiences and I’m fortunate to have run well there most of the time. I definitely like that place.
Patrick admitted it was a little strange to turn on the television set on Race Day for the 96th Indianapolis 500 and not be in the race. After all, Patrick had become such a vital focal point of every Indy 500 she had ever competed in – from her stunning
Every year after that, Patrick was a major story at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May leading into that year’s Indianapolis 500. It was her favorite race on her favorite track but that would end this year after she made the career choice to leave the IZOD IndyCar Series to become a full-time NASCAR Nationwide Series driver this year followed by a full-time Sprint Cup driver in 2013.
By running a limited Sprint Cup schedule in 2012, Patrick was at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Race Day for the Indy 500 preparing for the Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup race instead of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
She admits it was a surreal experience.
“It didn’t get strange until I turned it on, on Sunday morning and then it got a little strange,” Patrick admitted. “To see the stands full, a beautiful sunny day, driver introductions and all of that was the point in time I felt I wanted to be there then. But I’m very happy with where I’m at and what I’m doing. I had a race that night to go for. It was on to business after that. Indy was a great race, too. It’s always fun to be a part of great races and lots of passing opportunities and great passing. It was a great race to watch.
“It looked like the new cars raced really well at the track, looked like they were able to get really good runs on each other. At times cars could break away but it tended to stay pretty close. There were some green flag stops and that makes it interesting. It was a good race – a really good race. When you watch a race and there is a lot of passing going on – it was a record for most passes. That is fun to watch as a spectator.”
And that is how she ended her Brickyard return on Saturday – by watching yet another race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2012 as a spectator.