Danica Patrick begins her IndyCar farewell tour at Infineon Raceway
On Aug. 25, Danica Patrick announced she would leave IndyCar for NASCAR in '12
On Sunday, she hit the IndyCar track for the first time since her announcement
Some fans wished her well in NASCAR, but most simply said, 'We'll miss you'
SONOMA, Calif. -- Just one day removed from making the biggest announcement of her career, Danica Patrick was back at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., last Friday to prepare for the IZOD IndyCar Series race over the weekend. The Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma would officially begin Danica's IndyCar farewell tour as the driver closes this phase of her racing career before joining NASCAR next season as a full-time driver in the Nationwide Series and a part-time driver on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Patrick allowed SI.com to spend a "Weekend with Danica" to give a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most unique weekends of her career -- one where she begins her long goodbye to the series that helped create "Danica-mania."
12:15 p.m. -- The hike up the hill to the Andretti Autosport hospitality area is a long, steep climb which requires either a golf kart or motor scooter. Due to the layout of Infineon, the hill offers one of the most spectacular vantage points of the 2.303-mile, 12-turn road course that overlooks Northern California's wine country.
At the top, a group of Japanese media is waiting for Patrick to do some promotional work on IndyCar's final race at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan next month. That track will always be important to Patrick because it's where she became the first female driver ever to win a major race on a closed course racing circuit in 2008. So far, that stands as her greatest accomplishment and only victory.
Patrick and her assistant, Haley Moore, arrive and begin the interviews. Her trip to Japan will be much different this year because the earthquake that rocked that country last spring damaged parts of the racing oval, forcing this year's IndyCar race to be held on the Motegi road course.
"I guess I didn't know that last year would be the last year I would race on the oval, so I'm disappointed by that," Patrick, who has struggled on street and road course races throughout her IndyCar career, told her Japanese interviewer. "The oval is very unique and a very good racetrack and that makes for a good event. Our races can be very follow-the-leader on road courses. Maybe this one will be more interesting but I've always enjoyed going to Motegi because the culture and the food is something I will miss."
Patrick enjoys early-morning jogs with her husband, Paul Hospenthal, at the racecourses on the schedule and the jog around Motegi was notable because of the cherry blossoms that bloom in that part of Japan. When the IndyCar Series competed there in April, the blossoms were beginning to bloom, but when the race moved to September in 2009, the foliage changed.
It was in 2009 -- when Patrick was negotiating her current contract with Andretti Autosport -- that the thought of moving to NASCAR became a reality. That is when she negotiated her part-time Nationwide Series deal with JR Motorsports.
"When I negotiated this deal in 2009 I wanted to try it [NASCAR] and see if I liked it. I still loved IndyCar and had a great year in IndyCar. I wasn't quite ready to leave at that time but the ARCA race at Daytona in 2010 was the most fun I ever had in a race car. I liked it very quickly. I struggled in the Nationwide races early, but when I came back to those tracks for a second time I was all right."
12:30 p.m. -- After her interview with the Japanese media wrapped up, Patrick discussed the timing of her move to NASCAR.
"It's been a crazy week but I never lied when I said these things are complicated; they take time," Patrick said. "This isn't something you work on for a week or two and it comes together. We've been working on this for a very long time. There was a lot of different things that had to come together to make it happen.
"It is a little weird that everybody knows while the season is going on but there was so much talk about it. If we had done it the way we wanted, it would have been in October and that would have been terrible. So as quickly as legally possible we went ahead and announced what we did."
Patrick admitted she was curious how she would be treated in the IndyCar paddock over the weekend.
"People don't know what to say to me, but Marco Andretti came up to me and said `D.P., we're going to miss you' and gave me a big hug," she said. "Sometimes people don't know what to say and I don't know what to say, either. Goodbye? Thank you? It was just as awkward when we were trying to bring this thing together and I didn't know what to say about it."
In the weeks leading up to her announcement Patrick had to go into relative hiding at the track. She had to watch what she said because the deal wasn't finished. That was difficult for a driver who is very outgoing.
"I just felt really boring and that is so not me, but I couldn't be honest about everything because it wasn't appropriate or legal yet," Patrick admitted. "I felt really bad about it. I'm sure the media was fed up with it, too, and fans were sick of hearing about it. Everything was coming to a head."
Patrick's announcement was even delayed by a day while contracts were being signed. It was supposed to happen last Wednesday but did not take place until the following day.
While she's talking, a surprise visitor, 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and racing legend Mario Andretti, stops by to give Patrick a big hug.
"Aww, thank you, Mario," she said.
"We're really going to miss you," Mario said. "All the best to you."
"Thanks, Mario," she said. "You've been great. I'm good. I'm excited. It's been nice to get to know you. I'll still be around. I'll still be bothering you."
Even after the warm send-off, Patrick is confident in her decision to leave for NASCAR.