Danica back in her comfort zone

INDIANAPOLIS -- For Danica Patrick, stepping back into the comparatively quiet confines of the Izod IndyCar Series after her highly publicized NASCAR debut must be challenging in many ways.

It's not just a matter of adjusting her driving style and engineering thought process for a completely different kind of race car. It's about getting herself motivated and focused on being an Indy car driver with Andretti Autosport again after having her first taste of NASCAR competition (and presumably a look at the T-shirt and trinket sales numbers).

Danica is still the biggest fish in IndyCar. It's just a much smaller pond than she has been swimming in with NASCAR.

And for someone who seems to love the spotlight, that in itself might be a letdown.

Then again, if the Andretti team regains championship form under the sole ownership of Michael Andretti along with newly hired team manager Tom Anderson, Patrick could find plenty of reason to be fired up by her "day job" as an Indy car driver.

"I hope to just improve from last year and to keep climbing up," she said, previewing her 2010 season. "I hope we can make these cars more competitive on the road courses, especially because we have more of them. The street courses are an area where we as a team struggled a lot last year.

"So we've really been trying to rethink and unthink almost the things that we've done over the last couple of years to try and get back to basics in some ways and try to come with a little more of a fresh approach for those street courses in particular."

Patrick has had to rethink and unthink the very basics of driving and engineering in her part-time transition into stock cars. She won't race a NASCAR Nationwide car again until a gap in the IndyCar Series schedule in June.

"Being in an Indy car is definitely my comfort zone right now," she said. "I know what it needs to feel like and I know the technical changes that we need to make it better. In the stock car, I didn't understand what it meant to drop the rear track bar. I do now, but those things didn't make sense to me. Bump rubbers and coil binding and truck arms ... I don't know what that is. There is a level of comfort and confidence with Indy cars to know the setup and what changes do what."

Patrick finished a career-best fifth in the IndyCar Series standings in 2009 with a best result of third place in the Indianapolis 500. Her one victory in IndyCar competition came at Motegi, Japan, in April 2008.

She was 18th fastest out of 21 at the IndyCar Series' only preseason open test, staged at the Barber Motorsports Park road course.

"We didn't give her the car she needed," said team owner Michael Andretti. "I'm a little disappointed. We're a little behind, and we have to figure it out. We still have a lot of work to do to get it closer."

Andretti Autosport lead driver Tony Kanaan acknowledged the pressure Patrick is under in both Indy cars and stock cars.

"She has a lot on her plate; I feel for her," Kanaan said. "She is my teammate, and I know exactly what she is going through. Sometimes I think it's unfair because she has been put in a position where she has to answer to a lot of things, but that's the price of fame.

"I don't think she had a choice," he added. "That opportunity was presented to her and she had to take it. If I had to choose myself I would rather focus on one thing full time. When I did Indy car and ALMS, which I only did three races, it messed me up a little bit. You're jumping from one car that's completely different to the other. It takes a little bit. That could hurt her both ways."

Two-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon is another driver who has great respect for the dual program Patrick is undertaking.

"I think she's picked the hardest challenge on earth," Dixon said. "One with the media, and two with trying to be competitive in a series like that where the cars are so different. To do what she's doing takes a lot of courage.
I don't think you'd see any of those guys come over here and win races out of the box."

With the addition of a third Team Penske entry and the rise of transition teams like KV Racing Technology -- not to mention the addition of a race-winning new teammate at AA in the form of Ryan Hunter-Reay -- Danica will have to step up her game on the track if she wants to remain in IndyCar's top five in 2010.

For the long term, the message is clear to IndyCar officials: The sport as a whole is going to have to grow a lot -- and quickly -- for Patrick to consider sticking around. Many fans already think of her as a NASCAR star.

"I'm still in Indy car, and some people do need to be reminded of that," she said. "But that just shows we're not reaching far enough. We're not out there enough and our sport is not mainstream enough. That's the battle that we've all been fighting for years, though.

"I think Izod is doing a great job. I see their commercials on normal TV all the time. I love that. It's great. It's important to cross over more into the mainstream media, but the result is yet to be seen so far."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.