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Patrick's dramatic day mirrors her month

6/1/2005

INDIANAPOLIS – The eyes of the racing world – and many beyond – were watching Danica Patrick on Sunday.

We knew this would be the case well before the green flag dropped on the 89th Indianapolis 500, a race destined to be remembered for Patrick's arrival on the pop culture scene no matter the outcome.

A month-long media blitz told us this much. So did Patrick's lap times at the famed Brickyard.

But what the world wanted to know was, how would this story end? Would the 23-year-old rookie crack under the 'first female with a legitimate chance to win Indy' microscope, or would she indeed win?

The answer: She did neither.

Patrick never cracked (unless you count screaming into your helmet) on a rollercoaster day that tested her will as much as her skill.

The race day saw Patrick make history as the first woman to lead at Indy, but also saw her stall her car in the pits and lose 12 positions, then later she spun and made contact with two other cars to bust her front wing.

All of this, and she still managed to lead the race with seven laps to go. But victory wasn't to be, as Patrick's fuel-starved machine was passed up by three cars in the closing laps, leaving a roaring crowd slightly deflated.

How did it leave Patrick?

"I'm relieved," she said. "I'm relieved at the way our day went. Seeing myself 16th, you know, finally working my way up to eighth or something like that before the restart that I spun ... I think it's pretty great where we ended up, actually."

For the race's winner, IndyCar Series points leader Dan Wheldon, the irony of winning Indy and still being asked about Danica wasn't amusing.

"Don't care one bit," he said flatly when asked if he was aware he'd upset the race's top story line when he passed Patrick for good with seven laps to go.

But Patrick's day riveted those watching, just like she had all month, and the similarities between the two were everywhere. She bobbled in qualifying, but saved the car spectacularly and kept her foot pegged to the floor for three more laps to earn a fourth-place starting spot, highest ever for a female.

On race day, she stalled and spun, but she remained calm and raced furiously to move back through the field, and her fourth-place finish was highest ever for a female at Indy.

While it's clear the Andretti Green Racing stable does not want to see Danica overshadow the man who actually won, it was equally clear to anyone at the speedway that the loudest, most bone-chilling roars from the quarter-million-plus fans came when Danica was leading, not when Wheldon won.

Indy Motor Speedway was electric again, and it's not reaching to say Danica was the one providing most of the charge.

And that is saying a lot considering Patrick wasn't even the top finisher on the Rahal Letterman team – that honor went to Vitor Meira, whom Patrick rushed to hug when she arrived in the media center.

Meira finished second, illustrating Wheldon's point earlier this week that the Brazilian would be a serious threat to win.

But when Meira and Patrick sat side-by-side, the questions all seemed to be heading Danica's way, at one point prompting her to chide the media for not giving proper attention to the second-place driver.

That phenomenon led Wheldon to say, "You undermine some of that talent [by focusing on Danica]. ... Just remember, these guys are very good."

Wheldon's point has tangible evidence – the 27 lead changes were tied for second-most in Indy 500 history.

The fact the field was deep, however, only strengthens the case for Danica, who was making her first Indy start with immense pressure on her shoulders and yet delivered a dynamic performance in leading for 24 laps (just six fewer than Wheldon).

Afterward, there wasn't a hint of disappointment in Danica's voice or on her face; she joked that her father, T.J., must have been a hoot to have heard when his daughter made two mistakes in the race.

"He does his own thing," she said. "He wasn't sure if he was going to keep breakfast down. That was like at 6 this morning. So he sure gets riled up. And I'm sure that when I stalled, people learned new words. And I'm sure that when I spun, they learned more new words and saw new things.

"But at the end I have a feeling he was just proud, and he came to me after the race and he was crying and he was so proud. That means a lot."

It wasn't just Danica's family that was proud, and it wasn't just folks in Indianapolis watching her every move Sunday.

At Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, N.C., Beth Ann Morgenthau watched every bit of the Indy 500 from her transporter in the Nextel Cup garage. Morgenthau owns the No. 49 Schwan's Home Service Dodge driven by Ken Schrader, and she also is the only full-time female car owner in Nextel Cup.

Even with the Coca-Cola 600 set to run right in front of her, Morgenthau found herself immersed in Danica's day.

"I guess it's just natural for a female to pull for the female driver but it was incredibly exciting to see how well she did," said Morgenthau.

"But it was incredibly impressive, not just to see her finish so well but to overcome so much adversity to do that, and to do so as a rookie driver. Any driver doing that well would be admirable but the fact she did it as an Indianapolis 500 rookie is very, very impressive."

And then Morgenthau pegged exactly why this story is so important in a racing world known for its machismo ways.

"I'd like to see more and more females involved in motorsports, whether it is NASCAR racing or Indy Car racing or drag racing or whatever," she said. "I'd like to see more females not just as drivers but as car owners and officials and crew members and everywhere else in racing.

"Someone running as well as Danica Patrick did today in front of an international television audience is great for our sport – I'm hoping there were thousands of little girls all across the country watching on television, rooting for her and dreaming of the day they will run in the Indianapolis 500 or the Coca-Cola 600."

Patrick understood all month why her story had become so huge, transcending IndyCar racing and crossing lines the ratings-starved series hasn't crossed in its nine-year history.

She said she didn't read all the stories or see all the shows about herself, but she knew it was going on and was at peace in the eye of the storm.

Danica Patrick didn't win the Indy 500 on Sunday, but she didn't crack, either.

The only member of the Patrick family who might have cracked was Patrick's father, whose nerves nearly made him lose his breakfast, a full six hours before his daughter thrilled fans at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and nearly shocked the world.

Justin Hagey is motorsports editor for ESPN.com.