De Silvestro Poised to Fill IndyCar Void Left By Danica Patrick

The biggest cheers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway did not occur when Danica Patrick made her qualifying run late in the day on Sunday. No, the driver most often labeled the most popular in the IZOD IndyCar Series trailed in cheers to those for Simona De Silvestro, who qualified her backup car on Saturday just over 48 hours after a frightening wreck on the north end of IMS.

As Patrick continues to eye NASCAR in the future, it is De Silvestro who appears on the verge of filling that gap left by Patrick, even being able to exceed it in the coming years.

Patrick's slide in the eyes of some IndyCar fans started at IMS last year, when her car was surprisingly slow in qualifying. After completing her four-lap run, Patrick aired her complaints in a live interview broadcast throughout the track, saying:

"I wasn't flat out the last two laps and I was scared to death flat on the first two. I've never been bad here before. I've never been outside the top 10 on a finish or qualifying, so, it's not my fault. The car is not good."

To Patrick's credit, her comments this year when dealt a slow car in qualifying were much more measured. However, the damage was done in 2010, when the perception that Patrick would not push her car to its limits bothered some, but to put the blame on others irritated even the casual race fan. To complicate matters, Patrick had already begun to show signs of her interest in NASCAR, running a selected number of races in ARCA and Nationwide Series events.

The growing separation anxiety, combined with Patrick's apparent petulance following the 2010 qualification effort, greased the wheels for fans to start looking for a replacement for the highest-finishing woman in the Indianapolis 500. Enter a rookie from Switzerland, Simona De Silvestro.

Largely unheralded outside of racing circles, and possessing a much smaller marketing machine than Patrick, De Silvestro has picked up fans in the old-fashioned way: by engaging with them. With an effervescent, almost bubbly personality, De Silvestro is natural in the garage (not that Patrick isn't or has not been in the past), where fans can easily interact with the driver. This weekend, after suffering second degree burns on her hands, forcing her to don "Mickey Mouse gloves" of gauze, De Silvestro could still be found in Gasoline Alley, signing autographs, taking pictures and enjoying her time with fans.

Following her wreck on May 19, nary a word was heard from De Silvestro criticizing her team for a suspension break that sent her car airborne, nor for having a 2003 Dallara tub as a backup. Instead, she put the car in the 500, where the 2010 Rookie of the Year will start 23rd.

That cheer from the crowd was larger than Patrick's because De Silvestro was willing to do what Patrick was not in 2010: push a car (and herself) beyond its limits to make the race. Through the first four races of 2011, De Silvestro sits in 11th in the IZOD IndyCar standings, four spots ahead of Patrick. While Patrick is generally considered a contender on ovals, most expect De Silvestro to begin challenging for podiums and wins on street and road courses this season as well.

Building up a base of support one fan at a time, De Silvestro seems ready to fill any gap left by Patrick's likely departure for NASCAR following this season. The kind of effort shown at Indianapolis ensures that she will prove capable in the role. SB Nation

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