Patrick remains center of attention

Updated: June 9, 2005, 11:06 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – Danica Patrick is back on track this weekend, and so is the rest of the IndyCar Series, including Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.

Not that you'd know it.

Patrick, fresh on the heels of her high-profile fourth-place finish at Indy, is the sole focus of the IndyCar universe.

"[Patrick's] participation in Saturday's Bombardier Learjet 500 at Texas Motor Speedway is the most anticipated appearance in Fort Worth by a female athlete since Annika Sorenstam played in the 2003 Colonial," raved the front page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Fans waited up to 10 hours in 93-degree heat to spend a few seconds with Danica at a Wednesday evening autograph session.

Already leading the league in merchandise sales, column inches and screen time, Patrick's next task is to lead the IndyCar Series field past the checkered flag. Her first opportunity comes Saturday night at Texas, arguably the toughest and most dangerous track she'll run all year.

"Texas is really our Talledega," commented Fernandez Racing's Scott Sharp, a two-time Texas winner. "It's different than any of our other tracks because there is a legitimate third groove and you can run wide-open, three-wide all the way around. You need a car that's maneuverable in a big pack because the draft is everything."

Some drivers thrive on the high speeds and close quarters Texas is famous for. It's a track where the IndyCar Series' marketing slogan, "Adrenaline Amplified," makes perfect sense.

"The track is fast and there is always a lot of side-by-side racing, so the fans get to see a great show,"said Sam Hornish Jr., another two-time Texas titlist. "I always enjoy coming to Texas because that's where I got to celebrate my IndyCar Series championships in 2001 and 2002."

Texas promises to be an interesting test for Patrick, who played herself in slowly in the first three races of this year before emerging as a front-runner at Motegi, Japan. The 23-year-old hopes the strong form she carried through the month of May to that charmed fourth-place finish continues at Texas, where she can expect to be wheel-to-wheel with other competitors throughout the 200-lap contest.

"I will approach this track just like every other track I have raced on this year," Patrick stated. "The biggest challenge before us is to balance the demands outside of the car with what we need to do to be ready to race. It's easy to get distracted, but we can't forget what the main job is."

She will benefit from the return to action of her Rahal Letterman Racing teammate, Buddy Rice. The Phoenix native was sidelined by a back injury incurred in a crash at Indianapolis on May 11.

"I am ready to get back in a car – it's been a long few weeks," said Rice. "I have to admit it was pretty frustrating on race day not being able to defend my Indy title, but I understand the decision the doctors made was for my own good. The team did a fantastic job while I was sidelined."

Then there's Wheldon, who through no fault of his own is perhaps the most anonymous Indianapolis winner in history. The Englishman is gunning for his fifth win in six races in 2005.

"Our goal is to win the most races, the Indianapolis 500, and the championship and so far this year, we're on track," remarked Wheldon, who holds a commanding 72-point championship lead over Andretti Green Racing teammate Tony Kanaan. "We're here to win races, and if you don't come here focused, you'll finish 10th."

AGR dominated last year's June Texas race, with Dario Franchitti claiming the pole and Kanaan taking the win. But when the series returned to TMS in October, Helio Castroneves and Marlboro Team Penske broke Honda's 14-race win streak. This is the only time the IndyCar Series will race at TMS this year, as the season finale has been moved to California Speedway.

"We were strong at Texas last year and I'm hoping we'll be able to achieve the same success this time around," stated the Brazilian. "Racing at night always adds new challenges in terms of getting the set-up right to adjust for the cooler conditions."

"Cooler" in relative terms; temperatures reached the mid-90s Thursday afternoon and are not likely to drop much prior to the 7:30 p.m. qualifying session.

Last year, the rapid rate of IndyCar Series engine development led to a 6 mph increase in the pole speed between June and October. Castroneves' October 2004 pole speed of 215.996 mph will be the target Thursday night.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

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