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Patrick happy to take it slow

Fewer demands, more fun at Indy

By Tarik El-Bashir
The Washington Post / May 23, 2009
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INDIANAPOLIS - Danica Patrick's fifth May here has been considerably more relaxed than the previous four.

She has done fewer photo shoots, spent less time making rounds on the morning show circuit, limited her sponsor-related functions, and toned down her volatile temper.

All that, she said, has helped her focus on her ultimate goal: to become the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500.

"I'm fortunate that I'm a popular enough driver that I don't have to make the most of every single opportunity during the month anymore," said Patrick, IndyCar's most recognized driver. "I've not felt so empty, so tugged and pulled at the whole time. I have had years where I've felt like that, especially the first year when I lost it."

The scaled-back schedule has let Patrick get away from the track when she has wanted to go shopping, get a pedicure, or, in her words, do "things girls do." But, more important, it's allowed her to spend more time in the garage, working closely with her pit crew fine-tuning the black and orange No. 7 car her legion of fans will cheer so fervently tomorrow.

Patrick will start 10th, on the inside of the fourth row. It's not the fastest car she has had here - that distinction, she said, belongs to the one she piloted to a historic fourth-place finish as a rookie five years ago - but it has the potential to run up front.

But a fast car isn't the only thing that's important on the narrow, flat 2 1/2-mile oval at the venerable Brickyard. Patience and good fortune matter almost as much, she said. Whether she displays the patience it takes to stay out of trouble early and put herself in prime position late, well, that's entirely up to the driver.

"This race is 500 miles," Patrick said. "You don't have to pass everyone right away. There's plenty of time for things to go down and happen."

But Patrick can't control whether she has good fortune, as last year's race so cruelly reminded her. While exiting her pit stall with 29 laps remaining, Patrick collided with Ryan Briscoe's car.

What happened next might have been the most memorable moment of the afternoon. Patrick popped out of her car, then stormed down pit lane toward Briscoe's pit stall. But a confrontation never materialized; she was headed off by track security.

Patrick's reaction was predictable considering her well-known volatile temperament. Through the years, she has been caught by cameras stomping her feet in disgust and pounding her steering wheel in frustration, and overheard on her radio complaining about an ill-handling car.

But there's been less of that this month, which is something else that's been different for Patrick.

"I always used to feel that I had to prove to people that I cared by being mad," she said. "I had to let you know that I wasn't OK with [finishing] 10th by being angry and not looking happy. I hear so much that people think I'm so tough. I'm not."

But even the kinder, gentler Danica has her limitations, she said.

"If I get taken out of the lead on the last lap of the race, you're going to see it again," she said with a laugh. "Because that will make me mad."

While she's managed to keep a lower profile than in recent years, Patrick hasn't been able to avoid questions about her future in the sport she has elevated back toward the limelight. Her contract with Andretti-Green expires after this season, and once again, there's been speculation that she might jump to NASCAR.

"Who knows? Maybe," she said. "It's a contract year, and I'm going to look at everything. I will look at NASCAR. I can't start negotiating until June.

"First and foremost, this is where I'm comfortable; this is what I know. I have a lot of fun here, and I have a lot of friends here. Obviously, the schedule is a little bit easier. But we'll have to see."

Some racing insiders think Patrick's comments are little more than a thinly veiled attempt to gain leverage in her next negotiations with Andretti-Green or another IndyCar team. Several drivers, such as Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., have attempted to make the leap from open-wheel racing to stock cars in recent years only to struggle.

"I'm being asked about it," Patrick said when asked whether she's using the threat of leaving the IRL as a ploy. "I'm not bringing it up. I'm not slipping it into conversations, 'Well, you know it's my contract year.' I'm being honest. I'm going to check it all out. I guess I'm being more honest about it than I was last time. I'm also more open to it than I was last time."

But before she seriously weighs her next move, Patrick hopes the fortune she pulled from a cookie in Kansas last month was referring to the Indy 500.

The small piece of paper read: "A four-wheeled adventure will soon bring you happiness."