Danica making headlines for all the wrong reasons
Danica Patrick is back in the spotlight after last week's much-publicized run-in with Dan Wheldon. The big question facing Danica this week at Texas: Will she finally live up to the hype?
Two years ago, the phenomenon we have come to know as "Danicamania" arguably peaked at Texas Motor Speedway, site of Saturday night's Bombardier Lear Jet 550 (10 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Fresh off a charmed fourth-place finish in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, Danica Patrick found herself the center of attention when she arrived for the next race on the IndyCar Series calendar, and the spotlight on the 24-year-old has never really faded, even though she has not improved on that fourth-place result over the course of 31 subsequent races.
I have no doubt that we'll have good-handling cars for the race, so if the speed is there, we should be able to push forward. I anticipate having a fast car, so I'm optimistic.
That Fort Worth frenzy may be repeated this weekend as a result of Danica's latest news-making exploit: her confrontation of Dan Wheldon last weekend in the Milwaukee Mile pits after they clashed on track disputing -- you guessed it, fourth place!
Wheldon went on to finish third in the ABC Supply Co./A.J. Foyt 225, while Patrick crossed the line eighth after what was generally the most impressive race of her three-year IndyCar career. The result wasn't what Danica was looking for, and she recently admitted that she is feeling a great deal of pressure to break through and win a race. That may have contributed to her decision to chase down Wheldon and demand an explanation for what looked to most observers like "just one of them racin' deals."
It's doubly ironic that Patrick and Wheldon are mixing it up again verbally because that was the theme that colored the 2005 Texas weekend. Wheldon won the '05 Indy 500, but he felt shortchanged because Danica attracted the lion's share of the publicity and media coverage. His frustration spilled over at Texas and things finally came to a head a month or so later when Wheldon and his then-teammates at Andretti Green Racing boycotted an autograph session that segregated the crowd into lines for "Danica" and "All other drivers."
"There are guys out there other than Danica, probably some better," Wheldon commented prior to Texas 2005. "I keep telling the IRL that we need to be pushing all the personalities more in front of different people. She's not the only driver that has a fan base."
This week, Wheldon went back on the offensive with an even stronger attack. "She needs to start acting more in a more professional manner, and stop acting, quite frankly, like a spoiled brat," Wheldon commented this week on ESPN's Pardon The Interruption -- brave words on a show hosted by two of Danica's biggest fans in the media.
While TMS tried to capitalize on the controversy, the IRL sought to diffuse it. So they got Patrick and Wheldon together briefly at the track prior to practice and both emerged saying all the right things.
If Patrick hopes to win at Texas this weekend, she'll need to start by reproducing her qualifying form from 2005, when she claimed three pole positions and started third at Texas. Then she'll need to show a great deal of improvement in the race itself; the '05 TMS race was the most graphic example of how difficult Patrick found it to run flat out on cold tires from the drop of the green flag and she dropped from the second row of the grid to the very back of the field within a few laps, finally taking 13th place at the finish.
Danica has added two years' worth of racecraft since then, but her race starts are still under scrutiny. "I think we're all a little bit interested to see how it goes down in Texas," Patrick said. "[Andretti Green Racing] have obviously made progress on our speedway program since 2006 and we've shown well on the mile-and-a-halfs this year.
"I have no doubt that we'll have good-handling cars for the race, so if the speed is there, we should be able to push forward. I anticipate having a fast car, so I'm optimistic."
Assuming AGR's cars are on the pace with the Dallara-Hondas from Team Penske and Ganassi Racing, Danica will still have to beat her three teammates. Tony Kanaan is a former Texas winner, while points leader Dario Franchitti is having the most consistent campaign of his five-year IndyCar Series career. AGR's only question mark hangs over Marco Andretti, who has struggled in his sophomore season to get comfortable on ovals, especially 1.5-mile speedways. Marco has crashed out of three oval races in 2007 and withdrew from the other because of bad handling.
Wheldon dominated at Texas in 2006, leading 85 percent of the race. But a botched final pit stop with 15 laps to go relegated Wheldon to third place at the flag even though he turned the quickest lap of the race on the 200th and final circuit.
That should have handed the race to Sam Hornish, but Team Penske ran the American star out of fuel near the end of the race and Hornish had to settle for fourth at the flag. The mistake didn't ruin Penske's evening, however, because Helio Castroneves was the beneficiary of a gift win. Scott Dixon was second for Ganassi as the IRL's top two teams completely overwhelmed their competition -- including AGR.
Andretti Green has obviously gained a lot of ground on Penske and Ganassi this year, but there are signs that the rest of the field is closer as well. That could provide a spark for teams like Panther Racing, Vision Racing and Rahal Letterman Racing.
Tomas Scheckter earned Panther's last race win at Texas in 2005, and the team's current lead driver, Vitor Meira, is certainly as hungry as any driver out there. Scheckter, meanwhile, has moved on to Tony George's Vision outfit, and he and teammate Ed Carpenter have run on the fringes of the top five this year. Scott Sharp, who took the place of Patrick and Buddy Rice at Rahal Letterman, is a former Texas winner coming off consecutive sixth place finishes at Indianapolis and Milwaukee.
Harder tires and modified aerodynamics contributed to the 2006 Texas race falling short of the mark in terms of wheel-to-wheel excitement, but that may have been a blessing at what is regarded as the most dangerous oval track the IndyCar Series competes on. Additional wing tweaks introduced this year seem to have separated the cars even more.
That probably won't matter to the 100,000-strong crowd set to turn out for Saturday night's contest under the lights, most of whom will have eyes for only the petite female driver in the black No. 7 Motorola car. Will Danica Patrick finally measure up to the hype?
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.