- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

INDIANAPOLIS — All Danica, all the time. That’s the way it has been for the past two weeks in the buildup to today’s Indianapolis 500.

Danica Patrick, the only woman in the 33-car lineup and only the fourth to race in the big event at the Brickyard in 89 years, is squarely in the spotlight heading into the 500-mile race.

“If she wins, it could mean so much to the IRL and the whole open-wheel sport,” said Tony Kanaan, the pole winner and reigning Indy Racing League champion. “That’s a lot of weight for a little girl to carry on her back.”

So far the 5-foot-2, 100-pound Patrick seems up to the task. She has a tremendous amount of grit, determination and focus, commanding an intense presence and often firing steely glances at the phalanx of reporters and fans that follows her everywhere she goes.

The 23-year-old former high school cheerleader isn’t all business, though. She has been known to smile and even giggle at times.

“I like to have fun, too,” she said. “But I put all that away when I’m in my race car or talking with my engineers.”

Patrick has been among the quickest drivers since rookie orientation began on the famed 2-mile oval May5. Only a bobble on the first lap of her qualifying effort kept her from winning the pole, and she will take the green flag from fourth today, the best starting position for a woman at Indy.

Patrick was fastest with a lap of 225.997 mph to lead the one-hour “Carb Day” practice Friday, the only time the cars got on the track during the week between the end of time trials and the start of the race.

She follows Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, needing only to finish eighth or better to improve on the best previous finish by a female. Guthrie was ninth in 1978.

Patrick, however, is not focused on simply finishing in the top 10 or just staying out of trouble. “I think I have a great chance of winning this race,” she said.

Driving the 650-horsepower IndyCars for the first time this year, Patrick has improved in each of the first four IRL races, culminating in an impressive fourth place last month in Japan. At Indy, she has been nothing less than a phenomenon.

Patrick would not be the first rookie to win here, although certainly among the least experienced.

Juan Montoya was the defending champion of the rival CART series when he won here in 2000, and Helio Castroneves was a two-year regular in CART and winner of three races before he took the checkered flag as an Indy rookie in 2001.

Still, Castroneves, who also won the next year, said he has no doubt Patrick could win, particularly since she is driving a Honda-powered Panoz for the powerful Rahal Letterman Racing team that won here last year with Buddy Rice.

“She is driving for a great team, and she has been fast every day since she got here,” Castroneves said. “If she can keep her nose clean, she’ll be OK. The only thing that might be a problem is that you have to have patience, and sometimes rookies don’t.”

Castroneves, starting fifth, and Marlboro Team Penske teammate Sam Hornish Jr., a two-time IRL champion and starting in the middle of the first row, also will be among the favorites as they try to give Roger Penske a record 14th Indy win.

Others to watch include all four members of Andretti Green Racing, including Kanaan, current IRL points leader Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta.

And don’t forget perhaps the most heartwarming story of the month: Kenny Brack. The 1999 Indy winner, nearly killed in a devastating crash at Texas Motor Speedway in October 2003, was called upon just last week to replace defending champion Rice, injured in a crash here on May10.

Brack responded by posting the fastest qualifying speed of the month, 227.598 mph. Since it came on the second week of time trials, though, he will start 23rd. Nobody has won from that far back since Johnny Rutherford started 25th in 1974 and charged to the second of his three victories.

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