Danica's next realistic goal? Being a title contender


The biggest cheers during Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach didn't come when Will Power made an audacious start to steal the lead at the first corner from fourth on the grid.

Nor were they the result of a tremendous wheel-to-wheel scrap between youngsters Franck Montagny and Graham Rahal as they fought midrace over third place, which ended with Rahal looping into a harmless spin. Or for Champ Car legend Paul Tracy after what might have been his last open-wheel race.

No, the loudest roar by the shore went up when trackside PA announcer Bruce Flanders revealed that Danica Patrick was in the house, and her smiling face beamed down from the many JumboTron screens that line the 1.97-mile Long Beach street course.

Danica literally had just arrived back in America from the historic IndyCar Series victory she claimed at Motegi, Japan, earlier that day. (Really -- there's a 16-hour time difference between Japan and the U.S.' West Coast.)

"The stewardess said, 'Well, I hope you get some rest because you didn't sleep very much last night,'" Patrick said. "My only opportunity to celebrate was in the helicopter and the car to the airport, and then the plane ride here. This week is scratched."

No problem. Danica will happily sacrifice sleep again and again if it's because she's winning. In racing there is no rest for the weary -- or the winner.

Once on the ground in SoCal, the work started. Shepherded by an Andretti Green Racing PR representative and no-longer-on-vacation IndyCar Series senior media relations manager Amy Konrath, Patrick bounced between phone-in radio interviews and stand-up television spots, occasionally finding a few spare seconds to greet familiar well-wishers who weren't in Japan.

Her late-afternoon news conference attracted double the attendance of the one staged a few minutes earlier for the top three finishers in the Champ Car World Series finale. As soon as that was done, it was more phoners and a private flight to New York to do the rounds of the talk show circuit.

Yes, now that she has won a race (in her 50th attempt), Patrick's status as the top draw in the resurgent IndyCar Series has been cemented. She's earned the right to be featured as IndyCar racing's poster girl.

"No one can refer to her as a novelty -- she's a proven winner," said Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage.

Promoters like Gossage must be licking their chops now that the latest wave of Danica-mania has ignited.

Already on Sunday, Richmond International Raceway experienced a rush at the box office for its June 28 IndyCar race, and track spokesperson Aimee Turner told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "She definitely increases ticket sales all over the board for any track."

According to Yahoo.com, searches for Patrick spiked 1,463 percent over the weekend.

"It's great for Danica and the league," said Indy Racing League founder and CEO Tony George. "Everybody has been waiting for this day to arrive and it finally has. A lot of credit is due to [Andretti Green Racing] and to Danica as a driver for getting to this position."

Patrick's detractors -- who will be even more in the minority after her Japan triumph -- will continue to credit a lucky fuel strategy for the win. But she completed 200 laps of the Motegi oval before anyone else did, and won using the same pit stop strategy as Helio Castroneves (who finished second) and Ed Carpenter (the sixth-place finisher).

"I'm again part of history," Castroneves said. "Danica did a great job, she passed me fair and square and that shows you how competitive our series is."

Danica's task now is to step up to the level where she battles regularly for race wins and podiums and becomes a legitimate championship contender. With the initial win under her belt, can she get on a hot streak like A.J. Allmendinger, whose first three Champ Car race wins in 2006 came in a row?

She's third in the IndyCar Series championship standings, and Patrick confirmed that the notion of vying for the season-long title is on her mind.

"The attitude really is just that we'll start thinking championship," she said. "It's not that I haven't been, but it's even more realistic now with having a win. Hopefully more come, and more come easily even. They always say that first one is the hardest one to get, which I agree.

"I've always thought that I was somebody that could compete for a championship because I'm a consistent driver, and hopefully I'm smart out there," Patrick added. "But what I had not done yet was win races, and it really does take wins to win championships."

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