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It took the hottest driver at the Brickyard in a car set up by an Andretti to finally reel her in. But say this for Danica Patrick, who single-handedly injected the 89th running of the Indianapolis 500 with the sort of voltage it knew back in the day: The lady lived up to her hype.
For more than three hours on Sunday--from the time Indianapolis Motor Speedway chairman of the board Mari Hulman George intoned, "Lady and gentlemen, start your engines," to the moment British driver Dan Wheldon crossed the finish line under checkered and yellow caution flags--the 23-year-old Patrick gave the boys all they could handle until she had to back off for lack of fuel. She also gave the sea of 300,000 spectators what they were hoping to witness: history. No woman had ever led, never mind won, the Indy 500. Yet with just seven laps to go the 5'1", 100-pound package of marketing gold was ahead in auto racing's most storied race.
An improbable set of events had propelled her to that lead. Driving at times like the Indy 500 rookie she is, Patrick had nonetheless started impressively, holding the position in which she qualified, fourth, until stalling coming out of the pits (a show of inexperience) after 78 laps. That error dropped her to 16th place in an Indy field generally described as the deepest in 20 years. Employing patience and poise she worked her way back to seventh before making another mistake. After a caution followed by a restart on Lap 155, Patrick spun out at Turn 4 and bashed into the car driven by Tomas Enge, busting the nose cone and front wing of her Rahal Letterman Racing Panoz- Honda.
The mishap put the race under caution again and caused a trail of damage behind her. "Danica lost it in front of me," fumed South African Tomas Scheckter, who had to retire from the race after hitting the wall while swerving to avoid the carnage. "My teammate [Enge] got caught up in it, and I got caught up in it. She got it wrong on the restart, a little mistake but [one that had] big consequences for everybody else."
Patrick blamed the spin on Scott Sharp's slowing down in front of her. Still, she stayed calm and returned to the pits, where it took 60 seconds to replace the nose cone. Four laps later, still under the yellow flag, she pitted for 13 seconds to refuel and change all four tires. When Patrick returned to the track, now in ninth position, she had 41 laps remaining. Her only hope for victory was for another caution flag, which would allow her to conserve fuel and finish without making another pit stop.
"We decided to roll the dice," said 1986 Indy champion Bobby Rahal, who with Late Show host David Letterman co-owns Rahal Letterman Racing. "Danica gets really good fuel mileage, and I didn't think we were fast enough to pass all eight of those guys in the last 28 laps." When the eight cars ahead of her steered into the pits for a final refueling at Lap 172, the gamble temporarily paid off. Patrick kept driving, as did the racer directly behind her, eventual third-place finisher Bryan Herta, one of four contenders from the powerful Andretti Green Racing team. Suddenly, to the shock and delight of the Indy crowd, Patrick was in the lead for the first time since Lap 56, when she'd also benefited from the leaders making a pit stop.
Now it was a race against fuel consumption. Patrick held off her frantic pursuers with one smooth 225 mph lap after another, maintaining her lead while the Speedway fans worked themselves into a frenzy: 16 laps to go ... 15 ... 14 ... Only two questions remained to be answered. Could any of the cars in the field catch her? And would Patrick run out of gas?
The rest of the questions she had emphatically put to rest. Three other women had qualified for the Indy 500-- Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher--and none had been considered a serious threat. The other racers not only acknowledged that the diminutive Patrick could win the race, but they also identified her as one of the favorites. Despite being an Indy rookie, she'd been among the fastest racers at the Speedway all month. Patrick qualified fourth (average speed: 227.004), even though she bobbled in Turn 1 during the first of her four qualifying laps. "She got pretty loose on that first lap and pulled it together," said Wheldon, winner of four of the first five races of the Indy Racing League (IRL) season. "Full marks to her."
On May 15 Patrick put up the fastest lap of the month, 229.880. Then, in the final practice session last Friday, with the cars set up as they would be on race day, Patrick was again the fastest car in the field. "I'm one of those people who feeds off negativity a little bit," she said in response to one of the endless, and often skeptical, media questions about whether she believed she could win one of the world's toughest races.
Certainly there was room for doubt. This would be only Patrick's fifth race driving Indy cars. She'd never raced 500 miles before. And it had been three years since her last win at any level--the Long Beach Grand Prix Pro/Celebrity event in 2002. Moreover, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a notoriously difficult track for rookies. It's narrow and the corners are only banked at nine degrees. Adding to the challenge, the event has the largest field of the year (33 cars). Patrick was uncowed. "I'm going to go out there and prove to you time and again that I belong here, that I will race up front, and that I'm a great driver and not just driving for a great team," she stated at a midweek media conference. "There's a ton of stuff I need to learn, but if I catch a break here and there, don't make any mistakes, yes, I think a rookie can win."