Danica accelerates her progress

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage knew he'd get some griping, but he got it right when he put Danica Patrick's seductive brown eyes on a big banner outside the track's main entrance to greet race fans.

And after the show that the IndyCar Series' most popular driver, if hardly its most successful one, put on Saturday night under the lights at the Firestone 550K, Patrick advanced from welcoming committee to queen of TMS -- and really, as if she wasn't already.

She certainly had her loyal subjects standing and cheering as she took her first lead of the race -- and of the season -- on lap 192 of 228 just beyond the start/finish line right in front of the fans. Just two weeks ago, fans at Indianapolis 500 qualifying booed her after she ripped her crew over the public address system, a first for a driver whose popularity suddenly appeared to be slipping away with her disappointing season.

Now both are back on the fast track. Saturday's second-place finish, her best at TMS and her first top-5 of the season after sneaking into a sixth-place finish at Indy, had the pony-tailed Patrick smiling even if she couldn't help but be a bit snarky, in that playful way of hers.

When she met with the media her first comment was, "Shoot, I thought there'd be more people in here."

But she quickly eased into enjoying the moment as the next questioner asked her about the contrast of being booed to beloved again.

"As a driver, you never get to hear those things out there," Patrick said of the cheers -- and jeers. "But when you get out of the car you do, and the fans were great after Indy as well. The fans were excited before we even came down the steps to go out onto the track and race today. The fans are always really excited in Texas, and it's always nice to be loved."

Her detractors will impatiently tap their fingers and suggest that she try winning a race on American soil, but as Gossage said prior to the race, sometimes your best races don't finish in Victory Lane.

That was certainly the case for Patrick on Saturday night. The 5-foot fireball behind the wheel of the green-and-black No. 7 GoDaddy.com car went toe-to-toe with the big boys and did everything -- including cutting off teammate Tony Kanaan as he tried to pass -- but find a way to catch pole-sitter and overwhelming winner Ryan Briscoe.

As dominating as Briscoe was, Patrick's impressive run stole the spotlight as she shoved her way back into relevance this season. Having entered the race in 12th place in the points standings, she tied the best finish of her career outside of her lone victory in Japan in 2008. Again, those detractors will harrumph that Japan was nothing more than a lucky fuel-mileage win.

Saturday night, Patrick started in Row 4 and made quick work on the 1.5-mile oval to get into the top five. By the first caution flag on lap 45, she had already maneuvered her way to fourth place.

She battled throughout, passing to move up and holding off others before taking on the leader Briscoe on lap 182. She pulled even but couldn't get around him on the outside, and she fell back for the moment.

"She did an amazing job. I had a lot of fun racing side by side with her," Briscoe said. "She was showing some really good speed. I think we just had a little faster car."

After Patrick pitted, Briscoe followed. Patrick emerged first and grabbed the lead as the crowd roared.

"It was probably my best, cleanest race," Patrick said. "I've had races where there have been awesome things that have happened and [it] gets overlooked because you're not in the lead, but tonight was probably my best race as far as top to bottom and not making any mistakes and being good in the pits, and being good in and out of the pits and being good on the track."

She just wasn't as fast as Briscoe, but no one was. Briscoe emerged from the pits and quickly closed on Patrick. He reclaimed the lead on lap 194 and never looked back.

"He just drove around the outside of me so there's not really much I can do other than swerve and drive into the side of him, but that doesn't get you real far," Patrick said. "He did a good job and he was fast and he won it. But it was a good day."

The IndyCar Series is gone for another year, but Patrick will be back at TMS on Nov. 6. She'll be driving in that other circuit, the one that races stock cars.

She won't be the face of the NASCAR Nationwide Series or even the most popular driver, but she will be in the familiar green-and-black No. 7 GoDaddy.com car.

Jeff Caplan covers motorsports for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.