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Fuel game costs Patrick yet another shot at Indy

- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2011

Danica Patrick can get to the front at the Indianapolis 500. She just can't find a way to finish there.

Twice now, IndyCar's biggest star has had the biggest race in her grasp only to watch Dan Wheldon pass her on his way to the winner's circle. Bad luck, bad timing, whatever. She's still looking for the win that will define her as a driver as much as a pretty face.

"Every time I come here, it's more and more depressing when I don't win the race," Patrick said after finishing 10th Sunday.

The question of whether Patrick has the talent to win at Indy was answered long ago. She's had top-10 finishes in all but one of her seven starts at the Brickyard, and was the rookie of the year in 2005, when she led the race for 19 laps. She won a race in Japan in 2008, and was seventh at Long Beach earlier this year.

NASCAR owners think enough of her potential _ not to mention all those sponsors she'd attract _ that she's more likely to be trading paint with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart at next year's Coca-Cola 600 than taking another shot at Indy.

What isn't so certain is whether she has the savvy to win the big races, especially after yet another opportunity to win went up in fumes.

There's a lot more to auto racing than jumping in a car and going hell for leather for 200 laps. It takes a good driver and a good car, but it also takes good strategy, particularly down the stretch.

This wasn't the best car Patrick had ever had. She was bumped off the starting grid on the first day of qualifying, then had to beat out rain showers and the ticking clock to grab a spot in the ninth row late on the second day.

But she kept herself out of harm's way Sunday and steadily made her way forward until she took the lead with 21 laps to go.

"We were not fast but we were strong," she said. "I felt like we were pretty good. I feel like maybe we'd have struggled if we were in the lead and might not have had the speed to say in the lead. But the way things were playing out at the end, that wasn't going to be the situation."

Even as she took the lead, Patrick knew she didn't have the fuel to stay there until the finish.

Without enough fuel to go the distance, drivers can pit, hoping there will be enough time and laps for them to work their way back up to the front. Or they can stay on the track, pushing the pedal to the floor while praying for a yellow flag that will allow them to slow down, conserving their fuel and preserving their lead.

It's not Patrick's fault _ the decision is made by the team, not the driver _ but it's Patrick's name that goes in the record book.

Patrick chose to stay on the track, her crew telling her with 17 laps still to go that she had enough fuel to last her 10 more laps. She kept pushing, but Bertrand Baguette _ who also didn't have enough fuel to make it all the way _ chased her down. With 11 laps left, Baguette passed her.

A lap later, Patrick headed for the pits, her shot at winning Indy gone.

"You've got to take the chance to win at Indy," she insisted afterward. "I would much rather come away finishing a little lower but having that chance to win at some point and time."

This same scenario cost her in 2005, when the rookie surged to the lead with 10 laps to go. She didn't have enough fuel to run at top speed, and Wheldon soon passed her. (So did two others; Patrick wound up fourth.)

It's her crew's job to keep Patrick running, and maybe there was nothing else that could have kept her in the race longer. Had she pitted earlier, she might still have wound up back in the pack.

But as Sunday's wacky finish showed, the only sure way to win Indy is to be running near the front at the end. Until Patrick gets herself in that position, she'll be just another also-ran.

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AP National Writer Nancy Armour can be reached at narmour(at)ap.org or follow her at http://twitter.com/nrarmour

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