- John Schwarb
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SPARTA, Ky. -- Of all the positive signs Sarah Fisher showed in her return to IndyCar racing this past weekend, perhaps the tinge of postrace regret was the most important.
At the end of Sunday's Meijer Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway, the bottom line was a 12th-place finish, one lap down, for the No. 5 Dreyer & Reinbold entry. Respectable for a team that had not shown much all season, certainly nothing to scoff at for a driver who last piloted an IndyCar at the 2004 Indianapolis 500 and had not raced competitively since last year's stint in a low-level stock car circuit.
But it could have been better.
"We were catching [cars] in the corners. We had a good race car down low, and I got a run on some guys," Fisher said. "We had a little bit of trouble with straight lines. I don't know if we put too much downforce or what. We'll review that and try and figure it out."
Fisher could say that with conviction because she will get that chance. After the race, Dreyer & Reinbold announced that the 25-year-old Ohio native will return to race in the season finale Sept. 10 at Chicagoland Speedway, and team officials left the door open for next season.
"She was very impressive from the [Thursday] test all the way through the race weekend, including the race," team owner Dennis Reinbold said. "She did everything we could have ever asked for."
The deal for Kentucky came together in a hurry, with Fisher stepping in for Buddy Lazier after his 15th-place finish July 30 at Michigan. She was fitted for her seat Monday, tested at Kentucky on Thursday and qualified Saturday.
Fisher qualified 12th for the race, taking the outside spot on Row 6 alongside Danica Patrick. Just a little bonus fuel on a fire media and spectators hoped would develop on the track between the Indy Racing League's star women of the past and present.
That never panned out as Patrick's Rahal Letterman Racing Dallara-Honda was more competitive and finished on the lead lap in eighth while Fisher struggled at times to keep pace over the 1.5-mile oval. She dropped a lap to the leaders early, then stayed out to get it back on Lap 89, when most of the field pitted under a yellow for track debris.
She fell a lap down again at Lap 179, getting a taste of the season's primary story as the Team Penske and Ganassi cars blew by in succession.
"They are unbelievably fast. Penske has figured something out with these race cars, and the Ganassi guys are figuring it out," Fisher said. "They've definitely got their basics down, and they're just doing a great job."
Fisher's job was different from the outset, to get comfortable in an IndyCar again, then try to nab a top-10 finish. She didn't reach that goal, but the goals of "getting on the bike again," as she said before the race, were met and exceeded.
"We were definitely conservative on our car [setup] because I wanted to finish and just get that rhythm going again. We did that," Fisher said. "It was probably the most comfortable I've felt in an IndyCar."
It was the kind of day suitable for some postrace daydreaming. After road specialist Ryan Briscoe drives the No. 5 in two weeks at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., the team will resume finding the right setup for the oval at Chicago.
There, will Fisher be able to hang closer to the front and get that top-10 finish? Might the former three-time most popular driver in the Indy Racing League give the current sensation a run for her money, planting more seeds for a rivalry that might become a full-time show next year?
Fisher's performance at Kentucky allowed all those questions to form.
"It certainly makes us very interested in building a program around her," Reinbold said. "Sarah's a race driver. She proved that again."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.