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Danica Mania will be alive and well at Kansas Speedway

4/25/2008

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. Because she has a genuine shot at winning this weekend's [race] at Kansas Speedway. In fact, the table is set for Danica to score a historic first victory for a female driver in IndyCar competition.

-- ESPN.com Kansas race preview, June 30, 2005

Pardon me for recycling a three-year-old lead, but it's safe to say that the media will be out in force for the 2008 IndyCar Series weekend at Kansas Speedway, where the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 will be staged Sunday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN). Why? Because the wait for Danica Patrick's first IndyCar win is finally over.

For one reason or another, Danica's historic victory last weekend at Motegi, Japan, kind of snuck up on everyone. For one thing, it was in a rain-delayed race halfway around the world, without most of the IndyCar Series' usual modest media contingent. Plenty of attention was focused on Long Beach, Calif., where the Champ Car World Series was staging its final event.

On Sunday morning, casual fans who might have missed the Saturday night ESPN Classic broadcast woke up to "Danica Wins!" headlines. And another round of Danica Mania is bound to break out this weekend in Kansas City.

So let's get the question out of the way immediately: Can she win again this weekend? Absolutely. She often runs well on 1.5-mile superspeedways, and she scored the first of her three IndyCar Series pole positions at Kansas in 2005. However, her best race result there is seventh place in 2007.

While Patrick might get a psychological boost from her first win, that's unlikely to turn her into an absolute front-runner on a weekly basis. She's now beaten the collective likes of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Helio Castroneves once, but it's going to take a few more wins before she can be mentioned in the same breath as those IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champions. It remains to be seen whether after one win casual fans and media observers can keep their expectations realistic.

Target/Ganassi Racing dominated last year's Kansas event, with Wheldon (177) and Dixon combining to lead 193 of the 200 laps. Wheldon is a mile-and-a-half specialist, and he's counting on success at those tracks to form the basis of his championship challenge.

He boasts a win and a pair of seconds the past three years at Kansas.

"Winning last year was much better than being second place in 2005 and 2006, and I really want to do it again," Wheldon said. "Surely, there's something to be said about consistency, but the Target team is focused on being at the top of the podium this weekend."

Castroneves arrives in Kansas as the IndyCar championship leader and will look to improve upon last year's third-place finish. He also finished second at Kansas in 2003. Meanwhile, the spotlight at Team Penske will be on Ryan Briscoe, who is a distant 20th in the standings and is under pressure to log a top-5 finish.

Although Patrick is the most recent race winner at Andretti Green Racing, the team's attack will be anchored by Kanaan, the 2005 Kansas race winner. Marco Andretti needs to rebound from his first-lap crash in Japan and find the form that helped him finish second in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"We have to put the last two races behind us and really focus on being quick at Kansas," Andretti said. "The car was great at Homestead, and I felt like the car was good at Motegi, too. Our focus has to be getting a comfortable race car and then we'll be OK on Sunday."

Kanaan is one of two former winners in the field; 2004 champion Buddy Rice of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing is the other.

The other main point of interest this weekend is the competitiveness of the teams transitioning from the Champ Car World Series. Oriol Servia's 12th-place finish for KV Racing Technology was the best result at the Homestead season opener, which was the first oval race for several of the new drivers.

"We're hoping to halve the gap compared to what it was at Homestead," said Justin Wilson of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. "The goal is to do well on the road courses and keep improving on the ovals. We feel like we have already a good understanding of the ovals and are making progress. I think every time we go to one, we're going to be one step closer. There's many steps, but we'll be a step closer."

Will Power's victory in the Champ Car finale at Long Beach counted toward the IndyCar championship. The Australian is the highest-ranked transitioning driver in the championship, in fifth place.

"It will be our second crack at an oval and Kansas is a different sort of oval to Homestead, so we've got a lot to learn," said Power, who drives for KV Racing Technology. "The more experienced IndyCar teams will really have the edge on us again this weekend, but it's going to be good to get a second hit-out on an oval after the things we learned in Homestead, as well as a good warm-up for the month of May at Indy."

There is one driver change this weekend, as Conquest Racing is replacing rookie Franck Perera with another rookie, Brazilian Jaime Camara. And the field has grown to 27 cars with the part-time addition of Tomas Scheckter for the first of three races in the Luczo-Dragon Racing entry.

"It's important for me as I haven't been in the car for a while, so I need to get out there and drive as much as I can," Scheckter noted. "I might have to come to the reality that maybe we go out there and struggle to be 15th. But I've got to not let that get to me and carry on working hard with the team, to think more of the future."

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