Sunday, May 24, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS | In four previous Indianapolis 500s, Danica Patrick has proved she can run with the leaders.

Now the bigger question is whether she can break through after three top-10 finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and become the first woman to have her face on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

While Patrick didn’t have the speed to contend for a front-row spot two weeks ago, her car has been consistent all month and she has ranked among the 10 fastest. The Andretti Green Racing driver will start 10th in Sunday’s 93rd edition of the 500, which ties for her worst starting spot here.

“I feel a lot of sort of sneaky momentum,” Patrick said. “There are things you won’t notice until Sunday. We’re working hard and had a good race in Kansas. We haven’t been so up there on the speed charts throughout the month, but that’s not the most important thing. The race I nearly won in ‘05, Dan Wheldon came from midpack and won.”

Patrick is coming into Indy after back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time since 2007. After contact with Rafael Matos knocked her out early at St. Petersburg, she finished fourth at Long Beach (after starting 22nd) and was fifth at Kansas. She is sixth in the IndyCar Series standings.

By comparison, she finished sixth and 10th in the two races before her groundbreaking win last year in Motegi, Japan. But a win Sunday would lead to an even greater flurry of fanfare.

Besides her finishes in the past two races, Patrick is also using the filly Rachel Alexandra’s win in the Preakness as positive incentive.

“I was happy to hear that a filly won last week,” Patrick said. “If I think it makes me finish any better, it does. As far as winning here it’s never happened. We all create images in our head based on things we’ve acquired.”

From her first race at Indy in 2005, she has taken a liking to the track. As a rookie, she led 19 laps before Wheldon passed her with six laps to go, which dropped her to fourth. In 2006 she ran as high as fifth before finishing eighth and was running second in 2007 before a late pit stop dropped her to eighth.

Last year, she worked her way up to seventh and pitted with 29 laps remaining. As cars were exiting onto pit road, Ryan Briscoe made contact with her and ended her day in 22nd place. That led to the infamous image of Patrick walking down pit road to confront Briscoe before a security officer corralled.

With Andretti Green co-owner Michael Andretti as her race strategist this year, Patrick could run near the front again. The biggest things will be what gambles she takes and when.

“Unless you’re light years faster than everyone, in which you tune back and save fuel, you pretty much go full out the whole time,” Patrick said. “The difference is what risks you’re going to take and how big the risks are. If you have a good car you won’t fall back, you’ll make progress.”

While Patrick isn’t one to be counted out, AGR teammates Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti might have better chances. Kanaan, who starts sixth, has led in all seven of his previous 500 starts, but his best finish is second in 2004.

Andretti, who starts eighth, was just edged out by Sam Hornish for the win in his first 500 three years ago and has been strong each other time.

“You have to be around at the end to have a shot at it,” Andretti said. “A small mistake is going to set you back, but you have to approach it like a war. You can never give up and keep pushing.”

The favorites to win remain Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Briscoe. Castroneves is on the pole and can cap an amazing comeback after being acquitted of tax evasion charges, while Briscoe - who is No. 2 - has been among the fastest all month.

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