Honda Racing / IZOD IndyCar Series / RacingLine
Patrick's Poised Performance Belies Her Rookie Status
She spun, got speared by another car, killed the engine on a pit stop, banged wheels with another driver at 220 miles per hour and had to go lean on fuel coming down the stretch. But, despite a few rookie mistakes, Danica Patrick almost won the 89th Indianapolis 500.
What the 23- year-old from Roscoe, Ill. did win was the hearts of most of the 250,000 fans and the respect of her fellow drivers as she led 19 laps and finished fourth in a spectacular debut at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"It was quite a day for me and I think I showed that I was a rookie with some of the things that happened," said Patrick, who did capture ‘500’ Rookie-of-the-Year honors. "But I also think I showed that my on-track performance is all there.
"It was only my fifth race and I've still got a lot to learn but I was very proud today."
Starting fourth in the Argent Panoz Honda, Patrick battled among the top five until her first faux pas on Lap 79 during a pit stop when she stalled the engine.
"That hurt because it dropped me back to 16th place," she said. "Being in the back was so much tougher than being at the front, because the cars are all scattered and you don't know who is going to check up when.
"I thought I would lose the most time in lapped traffic, but it's actually where I was gaining the most time. It was wild, but lapped traffic makes for a good show and that's what people want to see."
After rubbing wheels with Kosuke Matsuura, Danica's next great escape came on Lap 155 when she spun her tires during a restart, jumped sideways, and got hit hard by Tomas Enge but miraculously drove into the pits with only a damaged nose.
"I couldn't believe my car didn't get completely demolished because I got hit, like, twice, and I couldn't believe I kept the engine running," she continued. "Somebody was sitting by my side on that one."
But she had no co-driver when she led Laps 172-186 and then, after losing the top spot to eventual winner Dan Wheldon, re-claimed it with a nifty pass on the Lap 190 restart.
"If anybody questioned whether she was a racer that should have answered it," said co-owner Bobby Rahal afterwards.
Wheldon got back by on the next lap and, because she had to conserve fuel, Patrick was also passed by teammate Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta in the closing laps. But by becoming the first woman to ever lead Indy and keeping the fans on their feet the final 20 laps, Patrick put Indy back on the national television map.
"I’m so proud of her," said co-owner David Letterman after giving the 5-2, 100-pound road warrior a big hug. "She performed like a veteran, not a kid, and now I see why Bobby was so high on her abilities."
From the first day of practice it was easy to see that Patrick was no ordinary newcomer. She was fastest or among the fastest throughout the opening week and, after recovering from a big bobble on her first qualifying lap, still nearly claimed the pole position.
And she raced fast and hard for three hours in the grind that every driver says is the toughest mental challenge of the season.
"This is a great team and this was a good way to start my Indy career," said Patrick, whose poise complements her passion. "I got to lead Indy and race with some of the best drivers out there.
"I can't wait to come back."