The media couldn't get enough. Leading up to the race, it was all Danica, all the time, which appeared to bemuse her fellow drivers rather than annoy them. Said Sam Hornish Jr., who led the race for 77 laps on Sunday (more than any other driver) before hitting the wall at Lap 147, "She's not just talented, but she's the best-looking racer we've had as well--not to make the women who went before her mad. She's a very marketable package."
Patrick's emergence as a media darling could not have come at a better time for the beleaguered IRL, which has seen its TV ratings plummet and its losses soar after a decadelong feud with open-wheel racing rival CART (now the Champ Car Circuit). Her presence fueled a 40% leap in the overnight Nielsens compared with 2004; the 6.6 rating was the highest overnight for the race since 1997 (7.6). And now officials from the competing open-wheel circuits are said to be in serious discussions about forging some sort of merger or truce, their only hope of countering the soaring appeal of NASCAR. " NASCAR isn't used to being put on the third page of USA Today," Rahal gloated after Patrick was featured on the front page of last Friday's special racing section. "Which means they'll probably be trying to hire Danica away from us." Fortunately for the Rahal Letterman team, it has Patrick under a multiyear contract.
She's even exceeded the expectations of Rahal. "We were just going for Rookie of the Year here," he said on the morning of race day. "Restarts will be a challenge for her. But she's surprised me this month, and I think she's going to surprise me today."
She did. Patrick's refusal to go away surprised a lot of people on Sunday, and in the end she had one final trick up her sleeve. At Lap 186 Wheldon, who'd put on a fresh set of tires during his final pit stop, finally nosed ahead of Patrick on the front stretch, just as the yellow flag unfurled after Japan's Kosuke Matsuura had brushed the outside retaining wall between Turns 3 and 4. This time the cars raced three more laps under caution, enabling Patrick to conserve enough fuel to ensure that she'd finish the race. As the 15 cars still running positioned themselves at the bottom of the homestretch for a final restart, with Wheldon leading the parade, Patrick strategically retreated to third, drafting, then blew past Wheldon as if his Dallara- Honda machine was running on cobblestones. It was the 26th lead change of the race.
"My engineer told me we had to have the restart of the century, and I think we had it," Patrick said later. "I thought for a second we were going to win this thing." Had another yellow flag come out in either of the next two laps, it could have happened. But Wheldon, whose car was running better than it had all afternoon, hung with Patrick and, with six laps to go, passed her for the final time on Turn 1. A native of Emberton, England, Wheldon became the first British driver to win the race since Graham Hill in 1966, and in doing so he handed team owner Michael Andretti his first Indy win.
"It's the one race that totally eluded me as a driver," said a relieved Andretti, who failed in 14 starts at the Speedway. "I never tasted milk so good," he said after quaffing the traditional bottle in Victory Lane. "No more talk of this stupid curse. That's dead."
What's very much alive is the future of Indy Car racing. Patrick, who had to throttle down to conserve fuel, was passed by two more cars before finishing fourth under the yellow flag. But her point had been made. "If I could have run full fuel...." she said afterward. "We'll never know. But I'd like to think we could have maybe won it."
You can bet a bottle of milk on that.