The Racing Capital
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Jul 23, 2017
July 24, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
Danica Patrick is back where “Danica Mania” began – at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – hoping that history will repeat itself in the Indiana 250 on Saturday, July 28 – the first NASCAR Nationwide Series race ever at the Brickyard.
Getting a chance to race in the Nationwide Series at Indianapolis will be like a homecoming in many ways for Patrick.
“Part of me definitely feels it is one of the home tracks for me,” Patrick said. “I have spent the most amount of time there and especially because my family lives there now. 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 Indy car 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 the Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com Sunday, July 29 because team owner Tony Stewart put together a schedule of tracks that best tests Patrick’s skills in preparation for a full-time Sprint 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.”
Patrick admits the 2005 Indianapolis 500 put her career on the map. Even though she has switched gears, her path still goes to her favorite racetrack, only in a car with fenders and a roof instead of front and rear wings.
In her rookie season of 2005, she was the first female driver ever to lead laps in the world’s biggest race and was in the lead as late as seven laps to go before she was passed by Dan Wheldon, who went on to score the first of his two Indy 500 wins.
Patrick finished fourth that day, and “Danica Mania” had begun. She transcended her sport and became a mainstream name.
And what is her favorite memory of Indy?
“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.
“When I ran at Indy before, the schedule was pretty spread out. You’ve got qualifying weekend and race weekend. It’s going to be a standard weekend as far as time goes. It’s going to break up a little bit, but it will also give me a chance to be in the city for a day and have some things to do and see my family and spend some time with my crew. It will be a more condensed weekend overall. As far as Race Day goes, it will be pretty busy and pretty full. Indy is a town that loves its racing and loves the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
Patrick and her Nationwide competitors will hit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for practice Thursday, July 26 to kick off the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard. On Friday, the track gets reconfigured to the road course so GRAND-AM Road Racing has a full-day of activity, including two races. Then on Saturday, it’s back to the oval, where Patrick will qualify and race in the inaugural Indiana 250. Sprint Cup drivers also practice and qualify on Saturday, culminating with the “400” on Sunday.
Patrick’s first full season of Nationwide competition has seen its share of ups and downs as she was ninth in points entering the month of July. While she had just one top-10 finish (eighth at Texas) in her first 15 races, her best race was actually a 12th-place finish at Elkhart Lake, Wis.
She was running fourth on the final lap before she was punted off the track by 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1997 Formula One World Champion Jacques Villeneuve, triggering a near-international incident after the race.
While Villeneuve had to defend his actions to Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., Patrick kept her cool to the surprise of many who expected to see one of her trademark emotional outbursts.
“I think he said he got pushed in the grass,” Patrick said. “I saw it right after the race on TV, and I didn’t go back and watch it again after that. It didn’t look like he was in the grass when he hit me. “You know what, when I was younger and looking at drivers that I thought were really great, that is what I thought of Jacques. He was very quick to accomplish things in CART and the Indy 500 and then Formula One. I looked up to that and I looked up to him.
“I think it is just great and what is really cool is I get a chance in my racing career to race against people that I saw as a kid, and whatever happens, happens. But I think it is more cool that I get a chance to experience driving against them in my racing career.”
Patrick believed her road-course experience benefited her at Elkhart Lake with her best Nationwide race of the year.
“It was good to start in the top-10 and run in the top five all day,” she said. “I felt I was very happy about running well and running fast. I said before the weekend ever started that I’m more interested in running well and having a good pace and learning than I was in the actual position that I finish in because if you are not fast and you don’t learn, you aren’t going to get those. But if the pace continues to come up and I learn something every weekend, the finishes will come.”
One of the cool things about being a NASCAR driver is they get to run at both the Daytona International Speedway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same month as July includes stops at both iconic facilities. Patrick ran the Nationwide race July 6 at Daytona followed by stops at New Hampshire and Chicagoland Speedway before arriving in Indianapolis.
Patrick has a busy, demanding schedule but took a moment to reflect on having a chance to run both Daytona and Indianapolis in July.
“I feel like there is always a certain amount of energy that comes with a track that has a lot of history, but as a driver I feel like there are more things you reflect on and get wrapped up in while you are doing it,” Patrick said. “There are things where 10, 20, 30 years you look back and look at all the great places you have been and think about how often that is and how great an experience it was, but when you are in the moment, you look at what is the next race and what do I have to do?”
While Patrick is constantly looking forward, she does take time to look back and reflect on what the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has meant to her racing career. That is why she is looking forward to her return to the Brickyard in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
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. She had become such a focal point of every Indy 500 in which she started.
But she made the career choice to leave the IZOD IndyCar Series after 2011 to become a full-time NASCAR Nationwide Series driver this year, followed by a full-time Sprint Cup drive 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.
“It didn’t get strange until I turned it on, on Sunday morning and then it got a little strange,” Patrick said. “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.”
Patrick didn’t get to see the entire race because of a Coca-Cola appearance at CMS, so she missed the middle portion of the Indy 500. But she made sure she was there at the end to watch the climactic final laps of a race that saw an Indy 500-record 34 lead changes among 10 different drivers.
From listening to Patrick talk about watching the Indianapolis 500 on television, it was easy to understand how much she missed competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But Patrick will make her return to her favorite track in the first NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the 2.5-mile Brickyard on Saturday, July 28 driving the No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet for JR Motorsports.