Kansas track suits Patrick's skill set
Let's hope that America and its mainstream media, with their famously short attention spans, haven't given up on Danica Patrick after a couple of races where she didn't run at the front of the pack.
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Patrick, who became a household name after her fourth-place finish at Indy, has a genuine shot at winning this weekend's Argent Mortgage 300 at Kansas Speedway. In fact, the table is set for Danica to score a historic first victory for a female driver in IndyCar competition.
Unlike at Texas or Richmond, where Danica struggled on disparate tracks that test entirely different facets of a driver's oval racing experience and expertise, Kansas Speedway is a flat-out speedbowl where the only prerequisites to success are horsepower and handling.
And in those respects, Danica is well covered, with the dominant Honda engine and a Rahal Letterman Racing chassis setup that propelled her RLR teammates Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira to a 1-2 photo finish at Kansas in 2004. Add in Danica's 40- to 70-pound weight advantage over her male counterparts, and it's easy to see why she's a legitimate favorite this weekend.
"To be honest, I'm pretty happy to be going back to the big tracks where I have more experience and as a team we have had a lot more success," Patrick admitted. "We always knew that Texas and Richmond would be two of the toughest races of the season, because I simply didn't have any kind of experience on those kind of tracks. Bobby Rahal told me at the start of the season the most important thing I could do this year was finish races and gain experience and I know that as a rookie I am going to have some very good weeks and some weeks that aren't so good."
If anybody needs to have a good week it's Rice, who has struggled this year to find the form that brought him three wins last year, including the thriller at Kansas where he nipped Meira by 0.0051 seconds in the second-closest finish in IndyCar Series history. Rice knows that dwelling on last year's success won't do anything to help him get back to victory circle this year.
"I think that race was one to remember and I'd like to repeat that show again this year," Rice stated. "The competition is very tough this year but I think we'll be in the hunt for the win."
Meira is still searching for his first IndyCar Series win, and he will be extra-motivated at a track where he probably should have won in 2004. The Brazilian twice worked his way through the pack, but after running the last 15 laps side-by-side with Rice, but on the longer outside line, he was just unable to edge ahead of Rice in the final run to the checkered flag.
"Every time I would look over as we crossed the line, I was a few inches ahead and then he was a little ahead," Meira related. "It was exciting for us and I bet it was for the fans in the stands and on television. Actually, I thought I had won the race, but in the end it doesn't matter because it was a great day for Rahal Letterman Racing."
Another driver with a chip on his shoulder this weekend is defending IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan, who last week at Richmond failed to finish an IndyCar Series race for the first time in 22 months (25 races). With points leader (and Andretti Green Racing teammate) Dan Wheldon claiming a useful fifth-place finish, Kanaan has fallen 83 points behind in the championship chase, though he still ranks second to Wheldon. AGR's Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta rank fifth and sixth in the season standings, with Franchitti coming off his best result of the season, second place at Richmond.
Another driver riding high is Helio Castroneves, who finally cashed in with a win at Richmond for Penske Racing. Meanwhile, Sam Hornish Jr. hopes to rebound from a costly mistake. The two-time IndyCar champion crashed while hounding Castroneves for the lead, and it wasn't the first time that Hornish exceeded the limit during his two year Penske career. Castroneves and Hornish rank 3-4 in the season standings in the quest for Penske's first IndyCar crown.
The big question this weekend is whether the Toyota engine can maintain the same form it did at Richmond, where torque is more important than top-end power. In terms of pure horsepower, the latest Cosworth-developed Chevrolet engine seems to have the edge at the moment, as demonstrated by Tomas Scheckter's commanding victory at Texas three weeks ago. Scheckter has finished two consecutive races in the top five, the first time he's accomplished that since mid-2003, and he will be keen to build on his recent run.
His teammate, Tomas Enge, had a promising run going at Richmond before he was black-flagged for blatantly blocking Patrick Carpentier, who enjoyed the best run of his brief IndyCar Series career on the way to third place.
Scott Sharp is the last likely contender for the win. Fernandez Racing had the IndyCar Series' fastest car in 1.5-mile speedway trim in the second half of 2004, and now that Sharp has settled in with the team, he could shine. Teammate Kosuke Matsuura also runs well on this type of track and could emerge in the top five.
The IndyCar Series has drawn well at Kansas Speedway in four years of running there despite the fact that the races are often staged in steamy conditions. This weekend is par for the course, with temperatures expected to reach the low 90s.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.