- Associated Press - Friday, August 26, 2011

SONOMA, CALIF. (AP) - Ryan Hunter-Reay wished Danica Patrick well and believes his Andretti Autosport teammate will do fine as she makes the jump to the NASCAR circuit.

Hunter-Reay also said Thursday that having Patrick race in IndyCar for the past seven years provided a marketing boost but that he is confident the series will do well even without one of its most recognizable drivers.

“I don’t think IndyCar’s growth and health rises and falls with Danica,” Hunter-Reay told The Associated Press. “Certainly Danica has a massive following, and rightfully so. She’s respected by all of the drivers here.

“But if we’re relying on Danica for the health of the series, we’ve got bigger problems on our hands, which is not the case.”

Patrick announced Thursday that she is leaving open-wheel competition to race a full Nationwide season and a part-time Sprint Cup schedule in 2012.

The move had been expected for some time and didn’t catch many drivers by surprise. Patrick has spent the past two seasons running a split series between IndyCar and the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

Speaking before Friday’s practice session at Infineon Raceway, Patrick didn’t rule out possibly returning to IndyCar to race in the Indianapolis 500.

“I’ve said I love Indy and I’d like to keep doing it but we’re not clear on what’s possible for that in the future,” Patrick said. “It’s something we’re keeping in mind to try for.”

A day after making her decision to leave the IndyCar series public, Patrick looked and sounded very relaxed. She repeatedly flashed her familiar smile and joked with reporters during a 30-minute interview session.

“Mostly I’m just relieved that it’s out there and I can talk about it,” Patrick said. “The truth’s out there. I don’t feel trapped behind the secrets and the deals behind the curtains that nobody can really know about yet. I just had to really think about what was going to make me the happiest where I wanted to race.”

Hunter-Reay, whose controversial win Aug. 14 at New Hampshire was upheld by an appeals panel earlier this week, pointed to changes IndyCar is making for his optimistic outlook. IndyCars will have a newer, lighter chassis in 2012, while Chevrolet and Lotus are joining Honda in producing the 2.2 V-6 engines the cars will use.

“Our product is on the track racing,” Hunter-Reay said. “Next year with the new cars, and GM, Honda and Lotus going head to head, we’ve got a lot of momentum.”

Will Power, second in points behind Dario Franchitti, agreed.

“At the end of the day IndyCar is what made Danica,” Power said. “She does bring a lot of publicity now but it’s IndyCar that originally got her into this position. The decision to go to NASCAR wasn’t a surprise at all. She was offered more money to go there, so it’s as simple as that.”

Patrick has had mixed success since her arrival on the IndyCar circuit as a virtual unknown in 2005.

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