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Saturday, May 19, 2012
Indy 500 is on Danica Patrick's mind

By Brant James

NEWTON, Iowa -- Danica Patrick finished Nationwide Series practice at Iowa Speedway on Saturday morning, then punched up Indianapolis 500 Pole Day in her motor coach and started remembering how much she misses open-wheel racing's greatest event. And how much she thinks she has to accomplish there.

Watching James Hinchcliffe, who replaced her at Andretti Autosport, claim the provisional pole elicited sponsor pride aplenty but also a renewed hope to eventually attempt the race again.

"I know I want to," Patrick told espnW.com "It didn't work out this year, but it doesn't mean I'm going to give up. I'd like to do it. It's very early in the game, given the fact this one hasn't even run yet. But I'd like to for sure."

If Patrick and her business team were able to formulate a deal to put her in the Indianapolis 500 for an eighth time, it would require much logistical wrangling to accommodate the schedules of that race and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. She is expected to compete full time in the Sprint Cup Series next season with Stewart-Haas Racing. And if she did race the Indianapolis 500 again, it probably would not be with Andretti, she said, despite her past relationship with the team and the natural connection of using Chevrolet engines, as do her NASCAR teams.

"I don't know. I don't think the likelihood is very high with them, but you never say never," she said. "I know better than that in this world.

"We both moved on, you know? I think you always, you leave for a reason."

The Indianapolis 500 was the epicenter of a Patrick phenomenon that began with a gender-best fourth-place start and finish as a rookie in 2005. After a momentum-building May with fast lap times and a high grid position, she became the first woman to lead laps (19) in the Memorial Day classic. In 2009, Patrick reset her gender record for best finish (third).

Technical inspection problems and rains that greatly impacted the length of qualifying sessions last May created a Bump Day spectacle in which Patrick qualified into the race on her last try. She finished 10th after starting 25th and led 10 laps. Patrick, who is 10th in Nationwide points and qualified ninth for Sunday's race, said she watched Pole Day on Saturday as both a fan and as a former competitor who has unfinished business.

"It's the first day that things counted, obviously, so I'm curious," she said. "Of course, I am. I spent my whole childhood watching open-wheel racing. I spent years going to England and racing open wheel, coming back and racing open wheel. It's been my world for 20 years and beyond that. For almost my whole life, I've been watching it. I watch it and I think I know how to do it, I feel like I know Indy. I know what it takes to be fast and I feel like every year I learn valuable lessons about how to be better the next time. I felt like I learned a really big one last year, so hopefully that means sometime in the future I'll get to use that."

For now, Patrick will attempt to use what she learned last week during a rigorous weekend at Darlington Raceway in which she finished 12th in Nationwide and 31st in Sprint Cup at one of the sport's most demanding tracks. That includes being able to switch between the distinctly different Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars during a weekend without hurting performance. She has eight more combination weekends remaining this season.

"Last week, that was probably the toughest weekend you'll ever have," Nationwide points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. told Patrick during a Saturday news conference.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. agreed, saying the next-toughest remaining test likely will be New Hampshire Motor Speedway or Dover International Speedway.

"She's never been to Road America, so that will be kind of a challenge," he said of the Wisconsin road course. "There will be a lot of hot shoes that step up and run there, but the way she ran in Montreal (24th last year), I'm not really worried about that. I think she will be very good there."

Darlington also was a checkpoint for Patrick in terms of confidence and momentum, and in perception of her fledgling stock car career.

"I think Darlington was one of those weekends that could have confirmed opinions or served to develop new ones for people who didn't think I was doing a good job," she said.

Patrick said she appreciated the general outpouring of congratulations from the garage and media over her performance but seemed reticent to accept much praise for her results.

"I came into it just basically knowing it was going to be difficult and don't worry; I was plenty disappointed and concerned after the first practice in Cup, because I was last," she said. "My hope for the race was not to be the slowest, so, I don't know. I had pretty realistic expectations, I hope, but it kind of even was better than that at times. I think there was a lot of people that said, 'Good job,' and I really appreciate that because, let's face it, I had a 12th and a 31st or something like that. That means a lot, but it also means that people with experience are watching, and it was good it did go well for the circumstances."