INDIANAPOLIS - It was against the backdrop of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s mammoth
2.5-mile oval and its iconoclastic front grandstands that Danica Patrick hit the big time.
When Patrick, then driving race a car co-owned by Late Night superstar David Letterman, became the first woman to lead a lap in the Indianapolis 500, and wound up fourth, she instantly became a household name.
Her feat overshadowed the late Dan Wheldon’s win on that day in 2005 and it set a pattern for Patrick that some suggest still exists — that her celebrity far outstrips her performances.
It was there again on Friday as she was introduced to fans at a Chevrolet sponsored event in the infield at IMS to promote Sunday’s Brickyard 400.
The cheers for her, and line-up to get her autograph, were louder and longer than those for four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick.
Only her NASCAR Nationwide Series team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. garnered a bigger reception.
Patrick is back in Indianapolis to race in Saturday’s Nationwide Indiana 250, driving the No. 7
JR Motorsports Chevrolet, her first race at the big track since she left the IZOD IndyCar Series last season to go stock car racing full time.
Her debut season hasn’t exactly been a banner one. Patrick is currently ninth in the standings and has only one top-10 finish this season.
More damning is the stat that shows the 30-year-old Patrick has finished on the lead lap in only half of her 18 starts so far in 2012 and is trailing her 22-year-old rookie JRM teammate Cole Whitt — who has managed three top-5 finishes and eight top 10s — and who is seventh in the championship.
But it will be at IMS on Saturday where Patrick is hoping to have a break out race on the track that she truly loves.
“I love being here; I just like everything about it,” Patrick said of IMS. “To me the special thing about Indy is obviously I’ve had great experiences, but it’s about the track. It doesn’t matter what kind of car I come in here, I’ve had great experiences, memories. So that’s what I like so much about it. And I love the tradition.”
She said that it was like a breath of fresh air just driving through the tunnel to get to the infield to where her motor home was parked.
Patrick said she told her husband, Paul Hospenthal, that for the first time this season she felt at home when she got to the race track.
“I think the best thing about coming back is that it feels familiar and it feels comfortable,” she said. “I woke up this morning and pushed the blinds up in the bus, and I said to Paul, I said, ‘It feels good.’
“It sounds like a story you wouldn’t believe, but I said, ‘It feels good to look out the window and see Indianapolis.’”
So if there is a place where she can turn around her season it will be at the Brickyard. Patrick said that there is not another track on the NASCAR circuit where she can instantly conjure up good racing memories, the kind she can use on Saturday in the race.
But she said experience has also taught her that a driver needs to respect the fact that Indy can be treacherous.
“I just feel like I’ve had a lot of different experiences here that can help me, and again, it’s just a special place, where I feel like from the beginning I’ve always really believed that you have to show this track respect, and it will hopefully show you the respect back,” she said. “I’ve always thought that, and especially in IndyCar this place can bite you pretty big. I don’t think it’s too much different in a stock car to be honest. I don’t want to find the wall. I haven’t found the wall, and I don’t want to.”
Patrick also knows from experience that a win on Saturday to become the only woman to do so at Indianapolis would further cement her status as being bigger that the sport.
And don’t think she doesn’t know and appreciate that fact.
“I had a shot a winning my very first year here, so being the first woman to win at Indy is kind of not an unfamiliar concept to me,” Patrick said. “I think it’s just a matter of how the day plays out, the good work that you do leading up to the race, and then just having a couple of lucky breaks in the race and having a strong car.
“I know that JR Motorsports has done everything they can to prepare a great car for this race, so hopefully that’ll play into our favour.”