Danica to stay in IRL, but switch to Andretti Green

Updated: July 26, 2006, 2:11 AM ET
Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Danica Patrick's "heart and soul" are with the Indy Racing League, so that's where she'll stay -- for now.

Rusty Wallace's Take
Rusty Wallace
We have been hearing rumors about Danica Patrick going to Andretti Green Racing when her contract expires at the end of this season, so this news really doesn't surprise me.

What I wonder about now is this: Is Andretti Green going to form another team or is a driver leaving the team? The focus now has to be on Andretti Green Racing with its current lineup.

This is a tough deal for Rahal Letterman Racing because Bobby Rahal brought Patrick along and really gave her everything: her first ride, instructed her, spent money on her and put good cars under her. Now she's unhappy with the way her car has been running, so she's going to another team.

Her decision was made when her car wasn't handling well early in the season. The last two weeks she has been running well (two fourth-place finishes in both races), so I have to assume her decision was made before then. I really think she might not have made that decision if her performance had been better earlier in the season.

It's a good move for her, but I'm a big Bobby Rahal fan, as well. I like him, and it's unfortunate that Bobby was struggling and couldn't make her happy. She felt like she was doomed when they were running the Panoz chassis because she didn't like them. Plus, Bobby wasn't spending much time around the team; he was spending time with his son Graham, which I can understand.

Despite her announcement, I don't think this will change anything for the rest of the season with her current team. There's not much of a season left (four races), but it isn't as if she'll go out and race poorly; however, the team's championship hopes were pretty much gone when they pulled the cars out of the first race of the season after teammate Paul Dana died.

I wish her well, and I'm sure she's excited to go to a new team and make more money. But she also knows that she has to get her performance level up first.

A new career in NASCAR will have to wait.

Though she isn't ready to give up the speed of open-wheel racers for the popularity of stock cars, Patrick is switching teams. One of the IRL's most popular drivers in years signed Tuesday with Andretti Green Racing, which has produced two straight series champions and last year's Indy 500 winner.

Her current contract with Rahal Letterman Racing expires at the end of the season, and she had toyed with the idea of joining NASCAR -- a possibility she left open for the future.

"NASCAR is not out for good," she said. "It's out for right now."

Patrick said she was just exploring every option and was always leaning toward staying in the IndyCar series. She will start driving for the team led by Michael Andretti in 2007.

"My heart and soul is in IndyCar racing," Patrick said at a news conference.

Patrick burst on the scene in 2005 when she nearly won the pole at the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, then went on to become the first woman to lead laps at the Brickyard and finished fourth. She was also named IndyCar rookie of the year.

"She has made it very clear that one of her goals as a driver is to win the Indianapolis 500," Andretti said, "and we are looking forward to giving her a great opportunity to do that."

Patrick is the third driver under contract to Andretti Green racing for 2007, joining Tony Kanaan and 19-year-old Marco Andretti, Michael Andretti's son and the sport's other budding young star.

"Danica has shown great talent during her first two seasons in the IndyCar Series," Michael Andretti said in a statement. "Our focus has been and always will be on winning races and winning championships. We certainly believe Danica will do that."

Patrick has finished fourth in back-to-back races and is currently ninth in the IndyCar standings, but her Rahal team had problems this season before switching to a more competitive chassis.

"I've had a very good run, a very good relationship with Rahal Letterman and Bobby Rahal," Patrick said. "He helped me when no one else stepped up. And I will be forever grateful for that.

"But at some point in time, there's just time for a change, time for something new. I feel Andretti Green is going to give me the opportunity to win races, and while Rahal Letterman still can, too, I have to go with what I think is best for my future. I feel like that's the place."

Patrick and AGR officials did not release the length or terms of the deal.

Brent Maurer, Rahal Letterman's director of public relations, said: "She told us she's leaving and we wish her well in her future endeavors."

Patrick's father, T.J., caused a stir earlier this month when he showed up at a Nextel Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway and told a Chicago Tribune reporter that Patrick was interested in switching to NASCAR.

But for now, the IRL is keeping one of its most popular drivers.

"She's been an important part of our growth and general awareness," IRL president Brian Barnhart said. "We're excited that's going to continue in the future."

Patrick's year got off to an awful start, as teammate Paul Dana died in a warmup session for the season-opening race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. IRL ran the race, but the Rahal-Letterman team withdrew.

It didn't get much better after that, as the Rahal-Letterman cars weren't able to keep pace with the dominant Penske and Ganassi teams. Through the first eight races, her best finish was sixth.

But the team began to turn things around after switching from the Panoz chassis to the more competitive Dallara. After the Milwaukee race on Sunday, she credited her team for working hard to make the midseason switch.

"We've struggled a bit with the transition of cars, but we're getting the hang of it," Patrick said. "It's just time for a change."

Andretti Green also has had a hard time keeping up with Penske and Ganassi this year. When AGR driver Tony Kanaan won at Milwaukee on Sunday, it was the first non-Penske or Ganassi car to win this year.

The Andretti father-and-son combo had a surprising run at Indy, with Michael leading the race late and Marco nearly winning it before Penske's Sam Hornish passed him in the final stretch.

But they younger Andretti's second-place finish established him as the series' next popular, up-and-coming driver. Now he and Patrick will race not as rivals, but as teammates.

"Obviously, I've been frustrated over the past year, but I promise you even Andretti Green has been frustrated," Patrick said. "Everybody at some point in time has been. I'm excited to go to a team that has a lot of drivers I can learn from and knows how to win. They've been doing a lot of that."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press