- Tony Fabrizio, Contributor, espnW.com
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CONCORD, N.C. -- Danica Patrick will put in her usual 1,100 miles on racing's most traditional day.
That's 600 miles behind the wheel in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 if all goes well and, before that, the 99th Indianapolis 500 in front of the TV in her motor coach in the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield.
This year, she'll relive the day she changed motorsports 10 years ago this weekend.
It was the day Patrick, as a 23-year-old rookie and only the fourth woman to start the 500, pulverized preconceived notions and stereotypes.
She led three times for 19 laps, including laps 172-185 and 190-193 of 200, and finished fourth. None of the three women before her -- Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher -- had led a lap. None had finished better than ninth.
The day had a surreal feel. Danica Mania was born.
"It didn't feel overwhelming," Patrick says of what it was like to compete in one of the world's most famous races for the first time and nearly win it. "I didn't feel super-excited."
Sitting in her motor coach before Coca-Cola 600 qualifying Thursday, she recalled May 29, 2005, with the sort of detachment she must have needed to hold it together at the time.
"I felt like the car was that fast all month, and it was kind of right where it was supposed to be," she said. "Instead of me taking it to the lead, it was like I was putting it where it was supposed to be. It was that fast. So it felt very comfortable.''
Patrick did, in fact, have a fast car. Her team, co-owned by Bobby Rahal and David Letterman, had won the race the previous year with Buddy Rice, and Patrick put the car on the inside of the second row in qualifying.
It was the highest starting spot for a woman, and Patrick became the story heading into the race. That she also was well spoken and not bashful about her attractiveness made her bigger than a racing sensation.
"Even going into that week, I remember it was really crazy with a lot of requests for interviews and things," she says now. "I finally just hit the limit and said no more interviews.
"They said, 'Good Morning America' wants you to do an interview for the race, and I said, 'No, I told you no. I have to get my head right.' But I think they ended up coming to the track and it was pretty easy to do, so we ended up doing that."
The night before the race, Patrick attended a sponsor dinner that included a long autograph session and "having to walk around to 20 or 30 different tables." She never ate dinner, and there were five more meet-and-greets set for the morning. It was just too much.
"But I woke up in the morning and I remember mom and dad saying they were all canceled," Patrick recalls. "So I was like, 'awesome,' so I just relaxed."
Everyone who has narrowly missed winning Indy has been left to wonder what might have been if a moment or two had gone differently. Patrick is no exception. She had a stall in the pits halfway through the race and a spin on a restart with 56 laps left that brought her to the pits for a new nose cone and wing.
Her team had got her the lead on lap 172 by keeping her out during a caution period, but with barely enough fuel to finish, she was ordered to set her fuel mapping switch to the leanest setting.
"I think we had eight fuel settings, and eight was for yellow (low speed during a caution period)," Patrick says now. "But when I went to seven, that's when I finally slowed down and started getting caught. I'm pretty sure any fuel mixture other than that would have been fine, because I was maintaining a gap."
Dan Wheldon passed for the lead (and win) with seven laps to go. Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta also got by.
Later, Patrick would learn there was still 2 ½ gallons of fuel in her tank when she finished. Enough to have run a richer fuel mixture. "Yeah, it would have been," she says.
Still, Patrick went from curiosity to rock star. The "New York Times'' ran the 500 race story on its front page for the first time in 24 years. "Sports Illustrated'' put Patrick on its cover. Magazines such as "People,'' "Glamour'' and "US'' came calling. And there were more interviews and appearances than could be counted.
She would post six top-10 finishes in seven Indy 500 starts and break her own record with a third in 2009.
By contrast, she has never finished better than 20th in a Sprint Cup points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, site of NASCAR's big Memorial Day race, and she has yet to crack the top 25 in the Coca Cola 600.
"I haven't had good finishes," she says. "I've actually run pretty decent here."
Two years ago, she had a solid Coca-Cola 600 going when she got into a three-wide crash with boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski. Keselowski took the blame for the crash. "And then last year," she says, "I qualified fourth and was second chasing down Jimmie (Johnson) and the car went off and we kind of went backwards. We were kind of coming back and we had an accident.
"Last year, in the fall race, I was taken out by (Joey) Logano in Turn 3 pretty aggressively, running 10th or 11th. So I wouldn't say that it hasn't been a bad track. But it hasn't been like a highlight race like a Martinsville for me."
Patrick has done plenty in her racing career away from Indianapolis. But Danica Mania? That can be traced to what she did at the Brickyard -- and particularly on that May afternoon 10 years ago.
"I have to say that every year, I felt like I was well-known, but each year, I look at the year before and think, nope, it's more now," she says. "The awareness for who I am or my name is much broader now than it was back then (2005).
"But something has to happen to put you on the map for sure."
Ten years ago, Danica Patrick captivated the world by nearly winning the Indy 500 as a rookie. Now, Memorial Day weekends are spent in the Coca Cola 600, and she has yet to crack the top 25.