INDIANAPOLIS – Under normal circumstances, it would be Dan Wheldon besieged by media and fans this month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The 26-year-old Englishman with the movie star looks has been a
dominant force in the IndyCar Series this season, winning three
of the four races leading up to Sunday's Indianapolis 500. He is
ahead of Andretti Green Racing teammate Tony Kanaan, the Indy pole
winner and defending series champion, by 46 points in the season
But the focus since practice began for the 89th running of the
Indy classic has been on Danica Patrick, an attractive, dynamic and
– most important – fast driver and the only woman in the 33-car starting field.
Patrick has been among the fastest drivers nearly every day,
stirring a media swarm that has led Kanaan to joke: "Hey, I won
the pole and all anybody wants to ask me is, 'What do you think
about Danica?' "
On Friday, the buzz around her only got louder.
While both Kanaan and Wheldon were fast, posting the second- and
third-quickest laps, it was Patrick who held the spotlight with a
lap of 225.997 to lead the one-hour "Carb Day" practice – the
only time the cars get on the 2½-mile oval in the week between the end of time trials and the start of the race.
And, even though Wheldon has been fast at times this month,
qualifying an undistinguished 16th has meant virtual anonymity.
Not that it's upset him.
"That did make it a little easier month," Wheldon said,
grinning. "But I sometimes like being the underdog. You can go to
bed early and get up late and nobody is bothering you."
As for Patrick being the center attention, Wheldon shrugged.
"She deserves it because she's got a great car and has been
very fast," Wheldon said. "But you've got to remember that she is
a rookie. When I was a rookie, I was running up front and feeling
very confident and made one mistake and wound up crashing.
"It's a very long race and I don't think she's ever driven a
race longer than 200 miles. But, having said that, I still think
she's going to be good in the race."
Wheldon actually is more upset that Patrick has upstaged Kanaan.
"If I don't win the race, I definitely would like to see one of
my teammates win it and Tony, well – the boy is just bloody fast,"
Wheldon said. "He won the pole and he should be the favorite to
win the race, but I don't think he's gotten the attention because
of Danica and Kenny Brack."
Brack, the 1999 Indy winner, has been the second-biggest story
of the month. Coming back from a near-fatal crash in October 2003,
Brack replaced injured defending race winner Buddy Rice last week
as one of Patrick's teammates at Rahal Letterman Racing.
He posted the fastest qualifying speed of the month but will
have to start 23rd since he did it on the second weekend of time
"Again, you can't fault anyone for being interested in Kenny's
situation," Wheldon said. "He's a great story and he's done an
amazing job coming back from those injuries. And he's another guy
with a chance to win the race."
Don't forget Wheldon, either, when you start talking about the
list of favorites.
Indy has been a goal for the youngster from Emberton, England
since he first got into racing.
After winning the season-opening event at Homestead, Wheldon
immediately started talking about winning the IndyCar Series' showcase event.
"My passion is the Indianapolis 500," he said, his eyes
gleaming. "The championship is important, but my goal is to drink
the [winner's] milk at Indy."
Wheldon finished 19th as a rookie, but he started second and
finished third in last May's rain-shortened event.
Starting 16th on Sunday won't make it easy, but Wheldon believes
he has as good a chance to reach Victory Lane on Sunday as anybody
in the field.
"We've got a team and a car that's capable of running up front
and winning this race," he said. "Phew! I can't even put into
words what it would mean."