LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Another day, another finish in which Danica Patrick seemed to fall further from relevance. The most popular driver of the IZOD IndyCar Series, and the only woman to win a major closed course race, Patrick finished 16th in the 36th running of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
It's the third time in four races Patrick has failed to finish better than 15th; she took seventh at St. Petersburg in the second race of the season.
Patrick qualified 20th and was one of only three drivers to incorporate a three-stop strategy.
Performance-wise dating to last season, she clearly has been miserable.
In her last five races of 2009, she had only one top-10 finish. Though she finished fifth in the series championship, she was closer to 10th place than she was fourth place.
Over her last nine IndyCar races, she has two top-10s, including sixth in last year's race at Motegi, site of her historic victory in 2008, when Helio Castroneves ran out of fuel on the last lap. However, seven of her last nine finishes have been 12th or worse.
And that doesn't include her performances in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where she finished 35th at Daytona, 31st at California Speedway and 36th at Las Vegas.
All wasn't lost, though. On Lap 66 on Sunday she made the most significant pass of her season when she slipped past Simona de Silvestro in Turn 1. De Silvestro, one of three females who started the race, finished 17th. Milka Duno was pulled off after 10 laps.
The rookie de Silvestro, who may not be able to run the whole season for the small Team Stargate Worlds/HVM Racing, has out-qualified Patrick in all four races and had generally run better in the first three races.
In fact, de Silvestro contended for a top-10 spot in each of the first three races before a mechanical issue cost her at Brazil (where she led four laps), Graham Rahal hit her from behind at St. Petersburg, and she spun on her own at Barber Motorsports Park. She was not a factor in Long Beach.
"Today's race was definitely challenging," said Patrick, who became a media sensation with a fourth-place finish in her inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 2005. "It's been a frustrating weekend all around for the No. 7 car."
The next race is at Kansas Speedway, where she finished fifth last year, and then Indianapolis, where she has been exceedingly strong.
"The thing that's more important is that Andretti Autosport got their first win," Patrick said. "We went without a win last year and we all struggled a lot. It's good for morale to get that win. We have to figure out what [Ryan Hunter-Reay's] doing that we're not."
If you're looking for a driver who can make a difference, look no further than Justin Wilson.
The Brit's second-place performance Sunday was the highest finish for the small-budget Dreyer & Reinbold team since owner Robbie Buhl won at Walt Disney World in the first race of the 2000 season.
Last year, driving for another small team, he provided Dale Coyne Racing its first victory in its 23rd year of competition.
Diversity of success
There were 17 cars on the lead lap at the end of the race, and four different teams were represented in the top four finishing positions: Andretti Autosport (Hunter-Reay), Dreyer & Reinbold (Wilson), Team Penske (Will Power) and Target Chip Ganassi (Scott Dixon).
Defending race winner and series champion Dario Franchitti struggled throughout the day and was unable to improve on his 12th-place starting position.
"Disastrous weekend for us," said Franchitti, who is fifth in points with teammate Dixon, 60 behind Power. "Not what we expected at all. We got as high as 10th but struggled all day."
Indy Lights race
Canadian James Hinchcliffe started on the pole and led wire-to-wire in the 45-lap Firestone Indy Lights race. Hinchcliffe held off one of two Americans in the race, Charlie Kimball of Camarillo driving for AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport, who finished 0.83 of a second behind the winner.
"I made a couple [of mistakes], but they were small enough that nobody noticed," said Hinchcliffe, the driver for Team Moore Racing. "Yellows kept coming out and coming out. ... Luckily we held up. I knew Charlie was right there, both these guys did a great job."
J.K. Vernay took third for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, 1.2 seconds behind the winner.
It's Kimball's second consecutive second-place finish, and the first time Vernay failed to win.
Kimball said he did his best but also that he wasn't going to take any unnecessary chances at trying to pass.
"I threw everything in the kitchen sink at him," Kimball said. "I'm playing the championship game a little bit."
Vernay maintained his lead in the championship and holds a 28-point lead over Kimball. Hinchcliffe is third, 41 points behind.
Sebastian Saavedra, driving for Bryan Herta of Valencia, was fourth.