Danica Patrick ends IndyCar career on tragic day

LAS VEGAS -- The most popular driver on the circuit parked her IndyCar for the last time as a full-time driver in the series Sunday.

After seven years of racing at 220 mph in the country's oldest form of racing, Danica Patrick bid farewell at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Izod IndyCar World Championships season finale.

Her mood had been upbeat all weekend until a fiery, multi-car crash early in the race led to the death of driver Dan Wheldon. The race was not restarted, but Patrick and other drivers drove five laps at slow speed to honor his memory.

Wheldon sustained the injuries in a 15-car pileup that Patrick barely avoided.

She was running low in the 1.5-mile oval coming out of the second turn when one of the airborne cars that was on fire sailed just to her right.

"There was debris everywhere, you could smell smoke and see the billowing smoke," she said in a live ABC interview while the race was stopped for clean-up and repair.

"I hope, I hope everyone is OK. I heard about Dan …," said Patrick, her voice trailing off. "You just don't want to be in that position."

Patrick finishes her full-time IndyCar career as the only woman to win a race, the Japan 300 in 2008. She was named rookie of the year in 2005 and placed third in the Indy 500 in 2009, the highest finish ever by a woman. She had one top-five and nine top-10s this season, her fifth with Andretti Autosport.

Though other drivers have won more, few have been as popular. She was voted Most Popular Driver of the IndyCar series the past six years and is favored to win again when results for 2011 are announced next month.

IndyCar honored Patrick before Sunday's race with a video highlighting her career.

Michael Andretti, her current team owner and one of the series' most successful drivers with 36 wins and three championships, acknowledged her exit will be felt.

"Danica did bring, I think, new fans to our sport and hopefully those fans aren't here only because of Danica," Andretti said. "I'm sure she brought fans that normally wouldn't have watched it but now have become fans of IndyCar racing."

"I hate to see her go," veteran IndyCar racer Davey Hamilton said. "She's probably going to take away fans, and we can't afford that."

Patrick, 32, will now focus on racing stock cars full time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where she has raced a partial schedule since last year. She also is scheduled to drive in up to 10 premier Sprint Cup races. She will race for a team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Winning is what Patrick wants foremost.

Dario Franchitti, who left IndyCar to race in NASCAR in 2008 but returned the following year, said running with cars and engines built by Rick Hendrick Motorsports will enhance her performance.

"It is a very tough move, but one advantage Danica will have is she'll be driving good cars," Franchitti said. "That will be a massive help for her. I hope she does well, she's a friend of mine.

"I could tell you she was getting frustrated with the lack of success [in IndyCar.] She has a good chance of finding some of it in Nationwide."

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