INDIANAPOLIS – Two things to know about Danica Patrick:
1) She really is retiring after Sunday’s race.
2) She has a decent chance to win it.
And if she does? "I can’t think of a better way to be done than if I win," she said.
Patrick’s 14-year run through the top levels of American motorsports will end Sunday with the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. It will be her 307th race – 116 in the Verizon IndyCar Series, 191 in NASCAR – in a career that some fans admire and others denigrate.
But it was a career that was impossible to ignore.
“I know there’s a chance,” she said. “There’s a difference between the beginning when I signed up (to run the Indy 500 one last time) and I was hopeful that it would go well and where it is now – having tested, qualified and gotten into race mode. It’s like, ‘Things are pretty good.’ Now it’s not just a hope, it’s more of a reality. I’ve really got a shot at it. At the end of the day, if Miss Indianapolis decides it’s my day, then it’s my day.”
Shortly before Patrick signed in March with Ed Carpenter Racing to conclude her career at Indy, she and Carpenter finalized the details during a short phone conversation while Carpenter watched son Ryder play hockey in suburban Westfield, Indiana. It was a natural fit that led to a seventh-place starting position on the 33-car grid.
“She’s a professional,” said Carpenter, who will start from the pole position Sunday. “She’s been a professional driver for a long time. Outside of that first day when she was knocking the rust off, she’s done a great job. She’s gotten better every day. She’s worked extremely hard every day, like Spencer (Pigot, driving the third ECR car) and I have, to put our team in the best position possible. She’s been a great teammate.”
Since Carpenter won the pole position on May 20 with a four-lap average of 228.090 mph, the notion that any of the team’s three drivers – Carpenter, Patrick or Pigot, who will start sixth – could win the race has increased dramatically. Patrick has the added advantage of experience in contending at Indy – she finished among the top eight four times in her seven previous Indy 500s, including a third in 2009 and fourth in 2005 – and recorded the eighth-fastest lap during Friday’s final practice session in the No. 13 GoDaddy Chevrolet.
The key to her chances could lie with Matt Barnes, ECR’s lead engineer, who was Patrick’s engineer when she was with Andretti Autosport in 2009.
“There is definitely a level of familiarity that feels good,” Patrick said. “The car is good and there are a lot of people who believe in me over here. I’m not saying they didn’t believe in me (in NASCAR), but the car is really good and Ed was very welcoming. It was really Matt, who called me and said, ‘Hey, you’re coming back to Indy.’ It’s nice to have someone that’s worked with me before that knows what I can do.”
It’s no secret that all three of the ECR drivers and their Chevrolet-powered cars have a chance to win. Especially among the team.
“We know we all have a great shot at it,” Pigot said. “Danica is very involved in all of the debriefs. Her feedback is just as important as mine or Ed’s. She was comfortable straight away. It only took her a day or so to really get back into the swing of things. That was impressive.”
Patrick’s career opened motorsports to the non-motorsports world. She wasn’t the first woman to compete against men in auto racing, but she came along at a time that made her story popular in a mainstream sense. She became a phenomenon of fame.
“You’ve got to put her quite high just because of the impact she’s had on our sport, not only within the sport but what she’s done for it outside the motorsports world,” Carpenter said. “She is one of the few people in the world who doesn’t need a last name. Everybody knows who you’re talking about. She’s definitely been a big part of the history of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. At the same time, the Indianapolis 500 played a big part in putting her name on the map.”
Patrick’s setup and line at Indianapolis are different than Carpenter’s and Pigot’s, but both say the differences are helpful to them. Not only do they provide additional information, they expand the horizons of the team’s potential.
“She’s been doing things a little bit differently (in terms of setup) to start out, so it’s been cool to see what she does with the car and where she places it,” Pigot said. “It’s a little bit different than what I was doing. It’s just more data and more information to put in the bank. We’ll be using a combination of all of our information in the race.”
And once it’s over? She’s done with racing. On her own terms, without regrets.
“I don’t regret any of the moves I’ve made,” she said. “I don’t, I don’t. … One of my favorite statistics is that I’m on a short list of drivers who have led both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. I couldn’t have that if I hadn’t done that. There were some high points in NASCAR. It wasn’t a complete failure by any means.”
It’s entirely possible that the best part of her career is the one remaining race ahead of her.
“It’s kind of made the story what the story is,” she said. “I’m just grateful I’m in a position where I have a fast car. I can see Indy on the way out the way I saw it on the way in, hopefully.”
Coverage of the 102nd Indianapolis 500 begins live at 11 a.m. ET Sunday from Indianapolis Motor Speedway on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.