- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — If the Indianapolis 500 were seven laps shorter, Danica Patrick would be returning to the Brickyard as defending champion for Sunday’s race.

After last year’s month-long frenzy of fan and media attention, Patrick had racing immortality in sight. But rookie mistakes cost her precious seconds early in the race, and Dan Wheldon overtook her with six laps to go as the gas in her tank dwindled.

She dialed down her fuel mixture and ended up fourth, still the best finish by a woman at Indy. Ever since, Patrick has talked at length about learning: more time in the car, mistakes to avoid, finding a comfort zone in traffic at 220 mph.

Now the 2005 rookie of the year no longer has “rookie” to fall back on when explaining why she still hasn’t won a race. She also returns with a year’s more experience and momentum after solid top-10 finishes in both of her races so far this season.

“I want to win it,” she said. “It went pretty well last year, and we had some success and turned a few heads and went fast, so I think that in my mind that’s obviously what I’m striving for.

“But to be really honest, that’s kind of the attitude that I have all the time.”

Despite missing the opening race this season after the death of Rahal Letterman Racing teammate Paul Dana, Patrick is 12th in IRL points — the same spot she occupied going into Indy last year.

Last year, Patrick crashed in her IndyCar debut at Homestead, Fla., and started slowly with finishes of 15th, 15th and 12th before her breakthrough race at Motegi, Japan, where she qualified second, led 32 laps and finished fourth. Then came Indianapolis, where she started fourth, led 19 laps — the last time after 193 of the 200 laps — and finished fourth.

She hasn’t led any laps yet this season, but she’s been consistent in the past two races, with a sixth-place finish at St. Petersburg, Fla., and an eighth at Japan, two of her nine top-10 finishes in 20 IndyCar starts. She has completed all 300 possible laps, finishing on the same lap as the winner in both races.

“I think that as a team we’re strong,” said the 24-year-old driver for Rahal Letterman Racing. “We’re going to have to work hard most definitely, and you can never quite take this event for granted. We’re up against tough competition. … But that’s OK.”

Her teammates are Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy winner who missed the race last year because of injuries from a crash during practice; and Jeff Simmons, who was hired last month after Dana was killed in a crash at Homestead.

The points leader, and perhaps favorite to win his third Indy 500, is Helio Castroneves, who has won two of the first three races this season.

Wheldon, the defending Indy and IRL champion, left Andretti Green Racing for Ganassi Racing and is second to Castroneves in points, 146-104. Sam Hornish Jr., Castroneves’ teammate with Team Penske, is third, 10 points behind Wheldon; Ganassi’s Scott Dixon and Andretti’s Tony Kanaan, both former series champions, are within five points of Hornish in the tight early season chase.

“It’s always been a very competitive race. But I think what makes it more so now is just that the fields are just that much deeper,” said team co-owner Michael Andretti, who is coming out of retirement to drive in his 19-year-old son Marco’s rookie race at Indianapolis.

“It used to be fairly easy to finish in the top five, but now if you finish in the top five, you’ve done something. It’s just because the field is so deep,” Andretti said. “Instead of five people having a really good shot at winning it, now you have 15, 20 guys having a good shot at winning it. That’s what makes it so tough.”

The Andretti fleet of entries includes two cars each for Michael and Marco and two each for Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta.

Marco Andretti, who won the Indy Pro Series race on the Speedway’s road course during the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix last year, would be the fifth member of his family to drive in the 500, joining his father; his grandfather, Mario; his uncle, Jeff Andretti; and cousin, John Andretti, the son of Mario’s twin brother, Aldo.

The only other rookies entered this year are P.J. Chesson, who is driving for the new Hemelgarn team co-owned by NBA star Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets, and Arie Luyendyk Jr., with a new team fielded by his father.

Arie Luyendyk Sr., a two-time Indy winner, has ruled out a comeback, but two other former winners, Al Unser Jr. and Eddie Cheever, are joining Michael Andretti for at least one more shot at Victory Lane. Cheever, who owns his own team, last raced in 2002 but decided to return to the cockpit this season and is 18th in points; Unser, who last raced in 2004, got bored with retirement and hooked up with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing as a teammate of former winner Buddy Lazier.

The biggest adjustment after such a long layoff is getting the car working properly, Unser said.

“If the car’s not working, then you’re going to have a pretty long day, and you’re going to have a pretty rough time,” he said. “Really, if the car’s working, we’ll be right into it.”

His only realistic goal, however, is to finish the race, something he’s done only once since his last win in 1994.

“Other than that, I don’t know,” Unser said. “I mean, the IRL is so equally competitive now. … Your pit stops, your strategy, I mean, everything has to fall in place in your direction for you to move up in the lineup. We’re just going to go out, we’re going to have fun, we’re going to do the best we can.”

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