Already favorite of fans, Patrick looks to add win

Indianapolis 500

Auto racing

May 28, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

INDIANAPOLIS -- One year after she set auto racing on its ear by nearly becoming the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500, Danica Patrick still draws the biggest crowds of any driver here, fans craning for a glimpse of her.

With the 90th running of the legendary race today, Patrick's own promotion machine also remains at full tilt. There's her just-released autobiography (Danica - Crossing The Line), her spree of television appearances, her seemingly endless list of commercial endorsements and the incessant interview requests from the media.

But there is something else dogging Patrick as she prepares to drive at speeds exceeding 225 mph around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway today: She has yet to win in the Indy Racing League.

Patrick came close a year ago, taking the lead with 11 laps to go in the 500 and launching "Danicamania," with the 24-year-old Illinois native instantly becoming one of the most recognizable figures in sports.

She nearly won the Indy 500 pole in 2005, then became the first woman to lead the race before surrendering the front spot with only six laps remaining to Dan Wheldon, who went on to win.

Patrick finished fourth, and was named rookie of the year, both in the 500 and, at season's end, the IRL. But she has started this year in mediocre fashion, and the question of when she will reach Victory Lane is still squarely in front of her and her team, Rahal Letterman Racing.

Deserved or not, the pressure on Patrick to win a race keeps building in lock step with her celebrity.

It hasn't helped that Patrick has struggled to keep pace with the fastest cars here this year, though her speeds have steadily improved.

The field is led by two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. and two-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Marlboro Team Penske, along with reigning IRL champion Wheldon and Scott Dixon of Team Chip Ganassi Racing.

Hornish will start on the pole, after qualifying at 228.985 mph, with temperatures expected to be in the upper 80s when the green flag falls. Castroneves and Wheldon join him in the front row of the 33-car field.

Other notables include two-time winner Al Unser Jr., 1998 winner Eddie Cheever and Michael Andretti, all of whom came out of retirement to drive the race another time. Michael's 19-year-old son, Marco, is making his 500 debut.

Patrick will start 10th, on the inside of the fourth row, after qualifying at 224.674 mph. But she said speed alone didn't guarantee success.

"Last year, people knew about me because I was fast," she said. "I had the fastest speed of the month. I almost got the pole. I almost won the race.

"We're struggling right now. But I don't think anybody thinks I'm a bad driver. I promise you, there's not a single time I got out on the track without giving everything I've got.

"It's such a long race and so many things can go wrong," she said. "You have to make sure all your passes are good, and you keep it on the track. You have to be patient."

Still, the question of when she'll win reverberates through the entire series, because, as her team's co-owner and 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal said, Patrick's arrival has "elevated the sport of open-wheel racing."

At a glance

Race -- 90th Indianapolis 500

Distance -- 500 miles; 200 laps around the asphalt-on-brick Indianapolis Motor Speedway track, a 2 1/2 -mile rectangular oval

TV -- Chs. 2, 7

Start -- 1 p.m.

Pole position -- Sam Hornish Jr., who averaged 228.985 mph in four-lap qualifications

2005 winner -- Dan Wheldon, who averaged 157.603 mph for his first win at Indianapolis.

Today's lineup

ROW 1

(Car number in parentheses; r-rookie)

1. (6) Sam Hornish Jr., Dallara, 228.985 mph

2. (3) Helio Castroneves, Dallara, 228.008

3. (10) Dan Wheldon, Dallara, 227.338

ROW 2

4. (9) Scott Dixon, Dallara, 226.921

5. (11) Tony Kanaan, Dallara, 226.776

6. (4) Vitor Meira, Dallara, 226.156

ROW 3

7. (55) Kosuke Matsuura, Dallara, 225.503

8. (8) Scott Sharp, Dallara, 225.321

9. (26) r-Marco Andretti, Dallara, 224.918

ROW 4

10. (16) Danica Patrick, Panoz, 224.674

11. (2) Tomas Scheckter, Dallara, 224.659

12. (20) Ed Carpenter, Dallara, 224.548

ROW 5

13. (1) Michael Andretti, Dallara, 224.508

14. (15) Buddy Rice, Panoz, 224.393

15. (90) r-Townsend Bell, Dallara, 224.374

ROW 6

16. (7) Bryan Herta, Dallara, 224.179

17. (27) Dario Franchitti, Dallara, 223.345

18. (52) Max Papis, Dallara, 222.058

ROW 7

19. (51) Eddie Cheever, Dallara, 222.028

20. (91) r-P.J. Chesson, Dallara, 221.576

21. (14) Felipe Giaffone, Dallara, 221.542

ROW 8

22. (92) Jeff Bucknum, Dallara, 221.461

23. (41) Larry Foyt, Dallara, 221.332

24. (21) Jaques Lazier, Panoz, 221.151

ROW 9

25. (5) Buddy Lazier, Dallara, 220.922

26. (17) Jeff Simmons, Panoz, 220.347

27. (31) Al Unser Jr., Dallara, 219.388

ROW 10

28. (12) Roger Yasukawa, Panoz, 218.793

29. (88) Airton Dare, Panoz, 218.170

30. (97) Stephan Gregoire, Panoz, 217.428

ROW 11

31. (61) r-Arie Luyendyk Jr., Panoz, 216.352

32. (98) PJ Jones, Panoz, 215.816

33. (18) r-Thiago Medeiros, Panoz, 215.729

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