For Patrick, Historic Win Only Raises Expectations

Danica Patrick's historic victory has amplified expectations for open wheel racing's most popular driver as the circuit prepares for the Indianapolis 500.
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS, May 22 -- Danica Patrick answered the critics and gave fans another reason to root for her when she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race last month.

The historic victory also has amplified expectations for Patrick, open-wheel racing's most popular driver, as the circuit prepares for Sunday's Indianapolis 500. The question no longer is whether she can win a race, but if she can win the biggest one of them all.

"I'm very confident," she said Thursday. "There's no reason why I can't win this race at all."

Patrick is among a small group of drivers backed by top teams expected to battle for the checkered flag in the 92nd running at the Brickyard. The 26-year old qualified fifth in her No. 7 Andretti Green Racing racecar, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway suits both her driving style and 5-foot-2, 100-pound frame.

"It's not very physical," driver Tony Kanaan said of Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.5-mile, mostly flat racing surface. "Sometimes she has problems when we are on a street course or a road course [because] it's a lot more physical than this track."

Here, though, "she is equal to us," said Kanaan, who also is Patrick's teammate and friend.

Patrick proved that in 2005, when as a rookie she challenged for the win after taking a late lead. But she was forced to conserve fuel in the waning laps and wound up fourth, the best finish for a woman in the race's history.

Last month, the competition had fuel issues, paving the way for her to take the checkered flag at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. After race leaders Kanaan and Dan Wheldon were forced to the pits to refuel, Patrick overtook Helio Castroneves on Lap 198 of 200 and sped into the history books.

"I was a little surprised I cried," Patrick recalled. "But it wasn't because of the win on the track. It was because how many times did I have to answer: 'When am I going to win? Do you feel like it's going to happen? Blah, blah, blah.' That's where the real emotion came from.

"I wasn't surprised to win. I expect to."

Before Patrick had unpacked from Japan, she was off on a whirlwind media tour that included appearances on CNN and ESPN, dozens of radio interviews and the David Letterman and Conan O'Brien talk shows.

"I'm very tired," Patrick conceded. "But with the way we came into this month, with the win, if someone would have told me, 'You're not going to get tired this month, everything is going to be under control.' I would have said: 'Hmmm. I should have tried a little harder.' "

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company