Danica getting re-educated at Indy
INDIANAPOLIS -- Danica Patrick's car owner was in Victory Lane hoisting their Stewart-Haas Racing teammate into the air Sunday as she stared under the hood of her race car amid the innards of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Indiana native Ryan Newman had just won the 20th running of the Brickyard 400, and Tony Stewart, who was culminating a gluttonously successful week in the motorsports business, was there to fete it.
Business was much more mundane for Patrick, a rookie making her first Sprint Cup start at the track that in 2005 launched her into mega-stardom. After that first Indianapolis 500, after becoming the first female to lead laps in open wheel racing's greatest race, setting gender records by starting and finishing fourth, she climbed from her race car and into a throng.
On Sunday, as mechanics whisked through the cramped garage area packing up equipment, she debriefed with crew chief Tony Gibson and reflected analytically about what she deemed an "'eh' day."
"I know this track very well, but I didn't feel like I knew it in this car," Patrick said after finishing 30th.
Patrick qualified 33rd and was 31st when then-race-leader Jimmie Johnson put her a lap down on Lap 36. She remained in the vicinity for most of 160 laps around the fabled 2.5-mile speedway. Her No. 10 Chevrolet began smoking from the tailpipes under a caution on Lap 80 because of what Gibson diagnosed as an oil pan seal problem, but although the engine probably produced less power with the condition, it lasted.
Gibson said the car's set-up was "pretty close" from the outset, but an inability to recoup track position in a race with just three cautions was detrimental.
"It's hard to make up that track position," he said. "It's hard with those long green-flag runs. She did a good job, though. Her lap times were decent. We just could never get in position to get track position.
"Danica did a good job. She learned a lot today, and we learned a lot today."
Indianapolis had been about big-stage moments for Patrick in her seven IndyCar starts, in which she had finishes of fourth, third (2009) and sixth (2010). With little translating from the sleek open-wheel cars that adhere so well to the low-banked IMS corners to the more brutish stock cars, Indianapolis is now about re-education. Patrick crashed just 38 laps into her first NASCAR race at IMS last season attempting a frustration-addled maneuver around Reed Sorenson. She finished 35th.
Stewart, who hosted NASCAR's first sanctioned race on dirt in 43 years at his Eldora Speedway on Wednesday, finished fourth. He said on Saturday that Patrick was meeting his expectations for a rookie at NASCAR's highest level.
The race began with IMS chairman Mari Hulman George decreeing, "Danica and gentlemen, start your engines." It was odd for Patrick, at a place where she has thrived, to deem the race "just wasn't really anything special," just another "baby step" in a long process.
But Patrick said that doesn't mean the old yard at the corner of 16th and Georgetown has become ordinary. Or that her supernova moments there are over. It might just take awhile.
"The track itself is always special," she said. "Big things can happen here, and it just didn't happen today. It doesn't mean the next time we come back you don't get lucky and catch a break or all of a sudden you have a good weekend and you do well.
"I've loved and hated just about every track. It's pretty hard to hate this one."