Patrick has shot at Indy again

Driver's boss says she'll be `real factor' if her car is right

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May 27, 2007|By Ed Hinton | Ed Hinton,Orlando Sentinel

INDIANAPOLIS -- The original Danica Patrick is back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with something she hasn't had since she rocked the racing world by almost winning the Indy 500 as a rookie in 2005.

A chance.

"Last year was definitely like, `Go out there and do the best you can, and bring it home [in one piece].' We really did not feel like we had a shot at all," she said while preparing for today's 91st running of the 500.

Last year she did a little acting for her public.

"I probably made the mistake of talking about it, saying I wanted to win, of course," said Patrick, one of three female drivers in today's race. "Really, what I should have said was, `Look! I don't have a chance! I had a better chance last year as a rookie than I do now. And there's nothing I can do about it. Nothing. So get off my back.'"

This time?

"If she can get the car right for herself, she's going to be a real factor on race day," said her new boss, team owner Michael Andretti.

"She's right there; she's a force to be reckoned with," said Indy legend Mario Andretti, Michael's father.

So the edge was back in her tone, the urgency back in her manner as she sat in the drivers' locker room of Andretti Green Racing in Gasoline Alley, a veteran now at age 25.

"I'm faster now; I've got teammates I can look to for answers and setups and fun," she said. "So it's a much, much better situation now. Much more comfortable. Much more support."

AGR doesn't have the brute speed of the dominant Indy Racing League teams, Penske and Ganassi. But it makes up for much with savvy, high-level engineering and strategy.

Teammates Marco and Michael Andretti finished second and third in last year's 500, and Marco lost by a car length to Penske's Sam Hornish Jr.

Patrick starts eighth today and Marco will start ninth, where he started last year. Fellow AGR drivers Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti start second and third.

Last season largely was a lost one for Patrick, IndyCar racing's most recognizable driver. (Among American racers in any series, the one-time go-cart prodigy from Roscoe, Ill., ranks third in name and face recognition only to NASCAR's Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., according to one survey of the general public published by The Sporting News.)

Her Rahal Letterman team struggled, most noticeably at Indy, with outdated Panoz cars rather than the faster, nimbler Dallaras. By the time they switched, later in the season, they were behind on development. But she took the heat because always in motor racing, it's the driver who answers to the general public, which neither knows nor cares about the technology involved.

"They were slow, for sure," she said of the cars. "And you can't say that, right? You can't throw your people under the bus. As a driver, you're quick to take the blame because it's obvious or because we just will."

Here last year, "I drove the crap out of an uncomfortable car," she said. She had the highest finishing Panoz, eighth, and was the only one to finish on the lead lap.

But to the public and the pop media, that didn't measure up to the dazzling run of '05 when, even after making mistakes in the pits and on the track, she came back to lead 19 laps late in the race. She became the first woman to lead the 500 before falling back to fourth, still the highest finish by a woman here.

"She's really a brave girl," Michael Andretti said. "Out of all the drivers in the paddock, she probably has the most pressure."

And that feels wonderful to Patrick.

"I think it's going to be a huge monkey off her back once she wins that first one," Michael Andretti said. "And I can't wait for that to happen."

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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