-- Since winning the pole for the 88th Indianapolis 500 almost two weeks ago, Buddy Rice has been asked time and again about the race's start.

Even more often, however, he has been reminded of the importance of restarts.

Rice, 28, is driving for Rahal-Letterman Racing, a team co-owned by former Indy champ Bobby Rahal and television personality David Letterman. Rahal's 1986 victory here was keyed by a restart on the fifth-to-last lap, on in which he got a critical jump on Kevin Cogan and Rick Mears.

"Bob's been hammering that all year, especially this last month," Rice said.

Rahal believes restarts are the easiest way to overtake competitors and that they will be even more important this year with new specifications making cars not only slower but more difficult to handle on turns and in poor weather conditions.

"I think restarts are going to be super critical," Rahal said. "Especially if there's one with five to 10 laps to go where traffic won't be an issue. . . . The smartest driver is going to win this race, no question."

Rice lost his ride with Eddie Cheever's team late last season, but was picked up by Rahal-Letterman to replace the injured Kenny Brack.

Just Wait Till Next Year

At a news conference Thursday with Rice and the drivers of his other two cars in Sunday's race -- Vitor Meira and Roger Yasukawa -- Rahal announced he would bring another member of his team, 22-year-old female driver Danica Patrick, to Indy next year. The news was perhaps most surprising to Patrick.

"I'm kind of bubbling from it," she said. "I really honestly hadn't heard Bob say that I was ready to come here. . . . To say it in an interview like that is a big confidence booster."

Patrick is a particularly intriguing prospect for a sport that has lost fans and seems to be short on stars. She has long, jet-black hair and movie star looks, dresses stylishly, projects an aura of enormous confidence that belies her diminutive 5-foot-2, 105-pound frame and has an engaging personality, which she displayed Thursday while talking to a group of reporters that outnumbered those interviewing pole-sitter Rice.

"One of the things that's definitely been in my corner has been the ability to do everything else off track," said Patrick, who has appeared in FHM magazine and hosts Spike TV's "Zero to Sixty" automotive segments. "I don't mind talking to cameras, I don't mind doing the photo shoots, I don't mind meeting new people and doing sponsor events. I don't mind being a poster-child of some sort as long as I've got a car back in the shop that goes fast."

Sarah Fisher, who will make her fifth start at Indy this year, will be the lone woman in Sunday's race. In her four previous starts Fisher has yet to complete all 200 laps. This year, racing in the Toyota Atlantic Championship, Patrick, who grew up in Rocsoe, Ill., but raced cars in England, finished third and fifth in her two starts.

High Carb

Kosuke Matsuura was the fastest driver during Thursday's Carb Day practice, the final tune-up session before Sunday. Matsuura, who will run from the ninth spot Sunday, turned a lap of 41.0536 seconds (219.226 mph) in his No. 55 Honda, capping an outstanding month. Adrian Fernandez was second fastest at 41.2719 (218.066 mph), and Scott Dixon was third at 41.4000 (217.391). . . .

In the annual Pit Stop Challenge, Rice's Rahal-Letterman team defeated Helio Castroneves' Penske team to capture the $30,000 first price. The event pits 12 crews against one another in a timed event that measures a team's ability to quickly change four tires and add fuel. . . .

ABC Sports, which has televised the Indianapolis 500 since 1965, and cable partner ESPN extended an agreement with the Indy Racing League and Indianapolis Motor Speedway to televise open-wheel racing through 2009. The current five-year, $65 million contract with the IRL expires this year. Financial terms of the extension weren't disclosed.

News services contributed to this report.

"I'm kind of bubbling from it. I . . . hadn't heard Bob say that I was ready," said driver Danica Patrick, whom Bobby Rahal will bring to Indy next year.PATRICK