Danica relieved to be done with road courses for a while
There probably isn't another driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series looking forward to a return to the ovals more so than Danica Patrick.
Face it, the starlet of racing has had a terrible season -- from her three disappointing attempts in the NASCAR Nationwide Series to her four IndyCar races for Andretti Autosport that have left her 16th in the standings.
After finishing fifth in the points race last year, Danica heads to the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway oval for Saturday's Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 not even cracking the top 15.
"It's very frustrating," Patrick told SI.com over the weekend. "My engineer [Eddie Jones] and I have to take a really, really hard look at what is going on. It's not like this has not happened to an athlete in their career when they hit a slump or can't seem to get it right or catch a break. If things had gone a little better and luckier, who knows?"
Patrick has lagged far behind her three teammates at Andretti Autosport. Ryan Hunter-Reay drove to victory in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 18 with teammates Tony Kanaan coming in fifth and Marco Andretti driving to a 14th-place finish.
"Last year at Long Beach I started in about the same place, caught the yellow when I needed to, moved to the front and did a good job up there," she said. "This time, I wasn't able to get that jump. I passed three cars and finished 16th. Last year I passed zero cars and finished fourth."
One week earlier, Andretti contended for the victory before finishing fifth, Kanaan was eighth, Hunter-Reay 12th and Patrick 19th in a 25-car race at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala. Her best race this season came at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 28, where she turned a dismal 21st place qualification effort into a seventh-place finish by playing the pit stops just right to get past cars that were much faster.
But Patrick hasn't been fast in any of the first four IndyCar contests. And in a form of racing that made her a star, she is very concerned.
Patrick's struggles on the street and road courses are a direct result of her failure to qualify well in those events, according to Andretti Autosport senior vice president of racing operations Tom Anderson. He is a long-time veteran in this sport, with three Indianapolis 500 victories to his credit with drivers Johnny Rutherford (1980), Emerson Fittipaldi (1989) and Juan Pablo Montoya (2000).
Anderson says the knockout form of qualifications used in IndyCar, where the top six drivers in each qualifying session advance into the next round, culminating with the "Fast Six," has not worked well with Danica's race strategy.
"Nobody is going to know it or admit it, but she drove a great race at Long Beach. But she was coming from 20th, so it goes unrecognized," Anderson explained. "The thing that is killing us is the qualifying. The qualifying format doesn't play to her favor because of the groups you can get. It is exciting for the fans. You have to have your act together in qualifying or you are going to stumble."
That is why an oval track race couldn't have come at a better time for Patrick.
It's the race before the 94th Indy 500, and Patrick wants to gain some valuable momentum heading into the race that made her a star as a rookie, when she finished fourth at Indy in 2005. She has finished out of the top 10 in the race just once (22nd in 2008) and her third-place finish at Indy last year was the highest finish for a female driver in the history of a race that began in 1911.
"A good, strong finish would be huge," Anderson said. "I'll guarantee you, knowing her, she is still going to be mad finishing fifth because she wants to do better."
That Patrick has struggled on street and road courses in her IndyCar career is surprising given her racing background. She began as a 10-year-old in karting and moved to England at 16 to hone her racing talent in the European junior formulas of racing.
Team owner Bobby Rahal put her in a Formula Atlantic car in the United States before moving her up to IndyCar in 2005. She joined team owner Michael Andretti in 2007.
"I am definitely looking forward to getting back to the ovals, I'm not going to lie," Patrick said. "There is nothing more rewarding than doing it right and doing a good job on the road courses, but they are long weekends because it has to go right for me."
Recently, Patrick's "race face" has been one of marked consternation. That is far different from the look of determination that helped her become the most competitive female driver in this form of racing -- prior to this season.
"I'm not going to let it wreck my year," Patrick said. "In the past, years and years ago it could have, but last year I made a vow to be positive and upbeat.
"What is really the challenge that not many take on is when things aren't going well -- you make a change, you fix it, you get it right, you bring everybody back up again. That is what I'm trying to do and hopefully it will work."
Anderson is the third person calling Patrick's race strategy at Andretti's team in three years. Former team co-owner Kim Green called the shots in 2007 and 2008. Michael Andretti was the man on the radio in 2009, and now Anderson.
"The dynamic of what I want to hear is different," Patrick admitted. "As many times as Tom misses something, Tom is going to bring something to the table that I didn't know. Tom stays real calm, which is good, and he stays pretty positive too. I came from being the No. 1 driver at Andretti last year to following everybody and that is a pretty big disappointment for everybody, including myself. It's been tough. Tom has stayed very upbeat, which is good, but on the other hand he doesn't know me as a driver and know my tendencies and characteristics.
"One of the things Michael Andretti pushed really hard on me was out laps. He pushed me and said he didn't care if I crashed; he wanted to know I was trying. I spun a couple times this year and Tom has encouraged me to not. I'm laughing because with my style I'm a little more cautious on the out lap. It's funny because Tom doesn't know that is me yet. It's wasting energy trying to keep me under control on the out lap where Michael would have paid me to spin on the out lap.
"It's just not knowing each other."
One thing Anderson has discovered about Patrick is the type of race car she prefers to drive is much different than what her three teammates like on a street and road course.
"Right now we seem to have three drivers who can drive a car that is basically 'tail happy.' It is neutral to loose and they deal with it," Anderson said. "Danica doesn't take to that."
Anderson said the type of race car setup that suits Patrick is similar to that of former CART drivers Adrian Fernandez and Jimmy Vasser. Those drivers liked a car where the rear was solid.
And then there is the assumption that Patrick has taken on too much by trying to break into NASCAR while also driving the full IndyCar schedule. Critics says that she has succeeded in confusing herself by driving two totally different cars that feel completely different.
"I think it's an easy excuse, an easy answer to think that is affecting me," Patrick said. "I don't think so. I'm not going to let it. I'm always going to make sure that driving is No. 1 and I'm able to put my focus on that and primarily driving the IndyCar. I'm not going to let that be my excuse at all."
And that is just what Anderson wants to hear from his driver, who often gets more attention as a media darling than from her performance on the track.
"If she got out of the car and wanted to talk about something else other than the car or the setup, I would say that she just isn't competitive," Anderson said. "But the girl is very, very competitive and wants to do well."
And when it comes to Patrick's future in the sport, Anderson believes it's in IndyCar and not NASCAR.
"I could be totally full of it, but I still think her bread and butter is IndyCar," he said. "I think she can do it here. She has a lot of talent."
Patrick needs to have a good finish to turn her slow start into something worthwhile. That is why this weekend may be her most important race of the season so far.
"I'm trying to be productive," she said. "I'm not going to let the first few races of the season dictate my year. We will look forward to a good weekend at Kansas to get it going on the upside."
The good news for Patrick is the IndyCar Series doesn't return to a road course until Watkins Glen International on July 4. That means two months of driving around in circles.
Patrick must excel on the ovals, however, or her season will continue to spiral down the drain. SI.com