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Posted: Monday April 21, 2008 12:45PM; Updated: Tuesday April 22, 2008 11:51AM
Bruce Martin Bruce Martin >

Patrick finally answers her critics

Story Highlights
  • Fourth-place finish in first Indy 500 increased pressure
  • Fuel strategy devised by team manager key to Patrick win
  • Patrick now focused on becoming first female IndyCar champ
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AirTran has introduced a commemorative Boeing 717 with Danica Patrick's image on the side. Fans can track
AirTran has introduced a commemorative Boeing 717 with Danica Patrick's image on the side. Fans can track "AirTranica Won" as it flies across the nation.
Photo courtesy of AirTran Airways

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Danica Patrick's breakthrough victory in Sunday's Honda Indy 300 in Japan has finally silenced the skeptics who thought "Danica Mania" was more hype than substance; that it was based on her beauty rather than her bravery.

"I wish it would have happened a long time ago but I'm not going to argue with how it happened," Patrick said in a telephone conference call from California less than 24 hours after her historic first win. "It happened for a reason.

"What a relief. I can say winning has always there. We all have dreams at being the best at something; winning the checkered flag ... dreams really do come true. You just have to be persistent enough. When times are hard, you go a little harder. You don't give up. A lot of times, that is the difference.

"I'm definitely a persistent one and work very hard and will continue to work very hard."

She also will be remembered as the "first female" ever to win a major auto race. While such drag racers as Shirley Muldowney, Ashley Force and Melanie Troxel have won in drag racing, Patrick's series races on closed race courses against more than one competitor at a time.

That is what makes Patrick's feat truly historic.

"I do feel kind of old today," Patrick quipped. "Yes, it's going to be one of those things that [is] remembered because it's a first. I've definitely thought about that before. I've hoped and wanted that as a person. I did think it would be nice to be the first female to win in history. With history going for a very long time, then I will be mentioned for a very long time."

"I thought a lot about it and a lot of races I had better opportunities than others. One of them was Motegi. It's where everything started in 2005. I always feel that I ha[ve] that opportunity. I seem to have better results when I'm nervous and sometimes when I'm a little unsure and don't know what to expect.

"It definitely felt like that with two days of rain and a flood coming down Turn 4. Those were things that came through my mind yesterday, that anything could happen and I needed to focus on the win."

In doing so, she finally has answered all of the critics that have followed her almost from the start of her career.

When Patrick burst onto the IndyCar scene following the '05 Indianapolis 500, a race she nearly won by leading 32 laps before giving up the lead to eventual winner Dan Wheldon just seven laps from the finish, the expectation levels rose to almost unrealistic proportions.

She was a phenomenon, a rare combination of attractiveness and skill, and the first female driver with a legitimate chance of winning in a major closed course racing series.

Before that was going to happen, however, her fans, the media and even Patrick needed a little patience. Wins don't come easily in a series that includes teams owned by Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti.

When that didn't happen during her first two years on the circuit, she left Rahal Letterman Racing at the end of the '06 season and joined Andretti Green Racing, believing that would be the team that would eventually take her to Victory Lane.

Ironically, her greatest competition would come from her own teammates at AGR, which in '07 included Indy 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti, '04 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan and talented youngster Marco Andretti.

It was in that competitive environment that Patrick was able to increase her own competitive desire. She finished a then-career high second at Belle Isle in Detroit last September and was in contention for victory throughout the season.

"What I've gained [from] my teammates and pushing to the next level was [a] positive attitude," Patrick said Sunday night in Long Beach, Calif. after returning to the United States for the first time since her historic victory. "They would say, 'when you win your first race, this is what you are going to do.' It was nice to hear that from Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan."

That attitude, along with a smart race strategy devised by team manager Kyle Moyer allowed Patrick to go 51 laps on her final tank of Ethanol and have enough speed at the end to blow past race-leader Helio Castroneves with three laps to go in Sunday's race.

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