Don’t Expect Heroics From Danica Next May
For the first time in seven years, Danica Patrick will return to the Indianapolis 500, an event she says will be her final appearance in any form of auto racing.
The Verizon IndyCar Series is taking advantage of the hype as for the second straight season, a showstopper type of pilot is joining the grid for the circuit’s biggest race. However, unlike Fernando Alonso, who greatly exceeded expectations when he qualified fifth and led several laps on race day before being sidelined by engine failure, Patrick is not a newcomer.
The term “Danica-Mania” took the Brickyard by storm 12 years ag0. After qualifying fourth for the 89th edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Roscoe, Illinois-native became the center of attention, handling multiple interviews from both the press and the electronic media, basically overshadowing the remainder of the 33-car grid.
Although Dan Wheldon would go on to take the checkered flag first after 200 laps, Patrick’s fourth-place finish garnered a greater share of the focus. As the big-name driver in IndyCar, the veteran would carry the open-wheel circuit, despite managing to win only one race at Motegi, Japan in 2008. Once results and the potential financial gains began to drop in 2011, the young prospect jumped to NASCAR stock-car competition hoping to make a name for herself there.
Unfortunately, the success she enjoyed in IndyCar would not be duplicated in the roofed racers. In six full seasons, Patrick only earned seven top-ten finishes and placed no higher than 24th in 2015 and 2016 on the final points table. The only notable highlight came in 2013 Daytona 500 when she qualified on the pole for the Daytona 500 and drove a solid race to come home in eighth at the finish.
After taking part in Speedweeks at Daytona for the final time in February, the attention will immediately shift to the Indy 500, where the racing and the speeds she was accustomed to from 2005 to 2011 have been altered greatly. To date, Patrick’s best qualifying run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was 227 MPH. Compare that to last year’s pole average by Scott Dixon at over 232, and a five-mile per hour gap is created. Also keep in mind, with the cars for 2018 lighter and potentially more aerodynamic than a year previous, the projected pace could be raised even higher.
The large drafting pack style of racing that has emerged at Indy since the debut of the Dallara DW12 in 2012 will also take time to adjust to. Under the previous IndyCar model utilized, overtaking at the Brickyard was much more difficult. An error in any of the four corners, particularly turns two and four now will almost certainly result in loss of positions, wherein the past an ability to defend post-mistake was possible.
Add to the changes, is also the fact that this will be the first time Danica Patrick has competed in IndyCar since the tragic events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011 when a multi-car pileup resulted in the death of Dan Wheldon. So being able to quickly shake loose from any potential mental block in the wake of the tragedy will also be key if the 102nd Indianapolis 500 is to be successful.
Also worth noting is how competitive will the equipment be for her to drive? Patrick reportedly met with Chip Ganassi recently to look into a potential ride for the Indy 500, a meeting in which the multi-time open-wheel series championship owner was quoted as claiming that he “liked the idea.” If a deal is struck between the parties, the chances and speculation of a strong performance will both increase. If the seven-time Indy 500 starter, however, is forced to take a ride with a team lower in the ranks, the realistic hopes of reaching the target of a win-threatening effort could be tougher to achieve.
While the addition of Danica Patrick is a win-win scenario for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, the danger of overrating such an appearance can be in play. Even though a run similar to Fernando Alonso’s in 2017, is perhaps within projection, reality may make it tougher to achieve in prospect. Either way, stay tuned for what could become a wild month at the old Brickyard.
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