It had the awkward potential of a teary tarmac reunion, played out in front of a bank of television cameras. Danica Patrick had barely been back inside the sprawling grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway when the preparations for her interview and stock car ride around the venerable old yard were under way. It would be perfect, and very well documented, this interview with Katie Couric for the launch of the broadcaster's new daytime vehicle.
Patrick logged 3,134 officially timed laps for 7,835 miles preparing for and competing in seven Indianapolis 500s, according to the sanctioning body. But she never before had sat in a stock car there, much less ferried a broadcaster around the place with cameras capturing every flinch. For a meticulous sort such as herself, it was off-putting. So she commandeered the car for a little warm-up.
It felt comfortable, but different all the while.
"I found that I was running a similar line to like when I would drive an IndyCar there, and you're remembering all the little things," Patrick said in a phone interview with espnW.com. Turn in early to Turn 2. There's a little bump there, just past center. The wall seems like it bends out just a little bit on the exit of 2. Every corner has a lot of memories. I suppose it should, given the amount of times I've been around it."
In her first full-time NASCAR Nationwide season since leaving IndyCar, Patrick returns this weekend to the bricks that built the foundation of her career, bringing her fame and wealth and hot laps with Katie Couric.
Patrick's lone win in seven seasons and 115 IndyCar races occurred in Motegi, Japan, in 2008. Although that victory was a decidedly big deal to a series attempting to re-establish its relevance in NASCAR's shade, it came half a world away and therefore dampened domestic fanfare. Her introduction to the national mainstream had come three years earlier in the Indianapolis 500, when, as a rookie with Rahal Letterman Racing, she set gender records by starting and finishing fourth, leading 19 laps -- the last with eight remaining -- and making open-wheel racing's greatest event relevant to non- or casual fans.
Her league-sponsored national media barnstorm coincided and, in many ways, overshadowed that of race winner Dan Wheldon. Although peers would carp over the balance of substance and style, she had proved her value to the series, helping the Indianapolis 500 improve its television ratings by 59 percent from 2004 and giving the race its first ratings victory over NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 since 2001. Everything she touched had value. Everything she lost, too. The left front wing of her car had dislodged after her half-spin in the 500 preceded a multicar accident that eliminated Panther Racing's Tomas Enge and Tomas Scheckter. It was collected by the team, autographed by Patrick and auctioned on eBay to benefit the team charity, raising $42,650.
Patrick's departure from IndyCar for a full-time NASCAR career -- after two seasons of moonlighting in the Nationwide series -- was greeted by as much ambivalence as series officials and drivers respectfully project, but her return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway is certain to be a spectacle, and one of the main storylines of the series' first race at the 2.5-mile speedway. She hadn't visited the place before the Couric interview since finishing 10th in the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
"It's not like it was a five-year gap of nostalgia kicking in, but I felt comfortable," said Patrick, who reset her Indianapolis record by finishing third in 2009. "I like being at the track, I like seeing everything. I'm always reminded of things when I look around. When I drive under that tunnel, I was just reminded how cool it was just coming back for that second [IndyCar] year and thinking, 'This is great.'"
Patrick said part of her hoped Sunday's Brickyard 400 would have been one of her 10 Sprint Cup races this year, but she understands how it did not fit with the plan of exposing her to new tracks or quirks of the NASCAR schedule. She said it would be "fair to say" a Nationwide victory at Indianapolis -- however unlikely, statistically, considering her admitted trouble on flat tracks in stock cars -- would mean more to her than anywhere else.
"There's no face on a Borg[-Warner Trophy, given to Indianapolis 500 winners], but it's still Indianapolis," she said. "And it's still those same fans and it's still that same excitement because of the history at the track."
Patrick reluctantly acquiesced to photographers' requests to kiss the yard of bricks for the Couric segment, mimicking the traditional winners' celebration. She thinks, or at least hopes, there is no Stanley Cup-like superstition of not making contact until victory.
"They made me do it," Patrick laughed. "I said, 'I'm not going to do it. I'm going to lean down and pretend like I did it, and they're like 'No! Come on. Do it! Do it!' So I said, 'OK, how bad could this be?' As far as I know, I don't think there's any superstitions on that, but I will say my first instinct is 'Don't do it.'"
(There isn't any such taboo, said speedway historian Donald Davidson.)
Good thing, because Patrick still hopes to contest the Indianapolis 500 again to address her "unfinished business" there. Her IMG management team is assessing logistics of what would be required to run in the Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600 the same day and looking to identify an IndyCar team able to give her the best chance to do so.
It is unclear whether the possible "Danica Double" could be mounted for next season, and debate is increasing whether that would be wise in what would be her rookie season in Sprint Cup. Then again, beginning her Cup career full time in 2013 has become fodder, too.
Tony Stewart, whose Stewart-Haas team has fielded Patrick's partial Cup program this season, said he plans to field three cars next season, including one for Patrick. ESPN analyst Andy Petree said in a teleconference this week that he was "very skeptical about how she'll do when she makes that step full time" in 2013.
Mark Dyer, Patrick's agent at IMG, said that although all opinions should be respected, "Tony Stewart [a three-time and defending Cup champion and former IndyCar titlist] is the opinion that we rely on the most. I think Tony's very comfortable with what we're going to do in the future."
"Everyone is going to weigh in on what Danica does," Dyer added. "That's part of being Danica."
Patrick, 30, has said since her breakout at age 23 that performance eventually will dictate how much interest her career generates, which in turn will determine how much sponsors are willing to invest in her and her racing programs. With her return to Indianapolis becoming a forum on whether her career could be damaged by a supposedly premature jump to NASCAR's highest level, and with IMG attempting to find sponsorship for a small number of her Cup races in 2013 -- GoDaddy will cover the "vast majority," Dyer said -- Patrick would benefit from the same type of performance in her first stock car appearance at Indianapolis as in her IndyCar debut there.
"There are lulls over the years that usually coincide with when I am not doing anything spectacular on the track, when I am not running that great or nothing new is happening," said Patrick, who is ninth in Nationwide driver points with one top-10 finish in 18 races this season. "But it seems I have been lucky enough in my life that all of a sudden something great will happen and gives people something to write about."
As her business team continues hashing out her future, Patrick will continue reliving her past with every step through the speedway this week. Even though her parents and sister, Brooke, reside in town, Patrick said she and husband Paul Hospenthal will bunk in their motor coach, just as they did for her Indianapolis 500s. That certainly will provide more opportunity to relive a mental scrapbook full of memories.
"I look around and see places where we'd go running every day when you'd be at the track for a few weeks, and you look up to the Pagoda and remember how many times you've seen your number up on the top, and you look at pit lane, and you think about what the cars look like when they go by and you think pits, you think about accidents during pit stops," she said, chuckling at the last item. "You think about all the things that have happened and going around the track. Going around Turn 4 [with Couric], I was like, Don't get on the little rumble strips because I remember getting loose one time there. There's just a lot of very identifiable memories wherever I look there.
" It's a good thing."