- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Hard to believe, but Danica Patrick is preparing to make her fifth start in the Indianapolis 500.
Of course, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is where "Danicamania" was hatched in 2005, when the then 23-year-old rookie burst into national prominence by leading late in the Memorial Day classic before ultimately claiming a fourth-place finish in what was just her fifth IndyCar Series race.
After that early promise -- which included three pole positions in her rookie season -- it was somewhat surprising that nearly three years passed before Patrick finally scored her first IndyCar Series victory.
That triumph at Motegi, Japan, last season was hardly a tour de force -- Danica led only the last three laps after faster competitors were forced to stop for fuel -- but as the first major open-wheel victory for a female driver, it was an event of historic proportions.
Although the second half of Danica's 2008 season was somewhat anticlimactic, she finished a career-best sixth in the IndyCar Series championship, and she arrives at Indianapolis on the heels of two consecutive top-5 finishes at Long Beach and Kansas.
IMS has always been a strong track for Danica. After her rookie run, she posted eighth-place finishes at Indy in 2006 and 2007, and was running solidly in the top 10 last year until she got swept into a pit-lane accident by Ryan Briscoe.
"I like it here [at Indianapolis]; I enjoy it," Patrick said earlier this month. "I embrace the month. I have a lot of fun. What exactly makes me good here, or whatever, is subjective anyway.
"The first year I came here, I took the advice from all the people around me, the people that have been here the most. The advice was to respect the track, to be patient, and I do that. I still ask opinions about what do I need to know about [Indy]."
Now in her third season of driving for Andretti Green Racing, Patrick is enjoying the benefit of organizational changes within the team that were made during the offseason, none more important than having team co-owner -- and Indy car racing legend -- Michael Andretti as her race-day strategist.
"Everybody on the team felt that I could help Danica from a driving standpoint," Andretti said. "She listens to what I have to say, she knows I'm not just blowing smoke and it's a great relationship. Now that I'm there, I can work with her all practice long and I'm more hands-on in that pit."
Andretti said he is firmly convinced that Patrick is capable of winning the biggest and most lucrative race on the IndyCar Series calendar.
"I think Danica has a legitimate shot at winning," he said. "She's had her head on straight all year. Out of the car, she's just different. She's learning to deal with the pressures she's been under on and off the track."
Some of the pressure that Patrick is under comes with the territory of being a mainstream media star. She is by far the most popular and most publicized driver in the IndyCar Series, with endorsements from title sponsor Motorola (and its Boost cell phone program), Peak auto care products and Tissot watches.
Then of course there are the racy GoDaddy.com television commercials and her revealing spreads in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue -- counteracted by a recently inked deal to appear in the Milk Mustache campaign.
In general, it appears that Patrick is trying to soften up her image.
She's been criticized several times in her IndyCar Series career for emotional outbursts, including after the pit-lane incident with Briscoe during last year's Indy 500. Patrick had to be restrained by a league security guard after she stomped out of her car to confront her competitor.
"I hope that it's a little bit more contained and hopefully it doesn't reach the level that it did last year," Patrick said of her temper. "I'm learning, and I'm learning how everything I say and everything I do, I just have to imagine that it's all on camera.
"Not showing emotions would definitely not be me. I think there is a time and a place for getting excited, but it's not all the time. My goal this year is just to smile a whole lot more."
The other pressure on Danica comes from questions about her ability to regularly win races and contend for the series championship. Although she is now a steady top-10 runner, her oval qualifying form has not matched her rookie season when she claimed the three poles. And there are still doubts about her qualifying speed at road and street courses.
"I think that I was surprised probably in the beginning to find out that the ovals were something that came a little bit easier to me than the road courses," she said. "I was even more surprised that the short ovals were even stronger than anything.
"I do think the road courses have really been coming along. It's something that I've put tons of emphasis on over the last couple of years. There's some incredibly good road-course drivers out there in the IndyCar Series and to run with them and to run with the likes of Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan is a big accomplishment. Now it's time to really buckle down and get out there and beat them instead of just run with them. It's hard, though. These drivers are not making it easy."
Kanaan, who is in his third season as Patrick's teammate at AGR, thinks it's understandable that she suffered a letdown after her breakthrough victory in Japan last year. His own career went through a mini-slump after his initial CART series race win in 1999, and indeed, TK did not win another race until he joined AGR's IndyCar effort in 2003.
"Obviously she did come down a lot after she won her first race," Kanaan said. "I think she's just getting more experience and she's learning how to deal with the pressure a little better. Soon enough, the way she attracts attention, people are going to ask when she is going to win for the second time.
"If you attract attention or you're famous, you're going to create controversy every time, no matter what you do, good or bad," Kanaan added. "It's about how you deal with the situation and not let this pressure actually interfere with what you really want, what your goals are and what you have to do."
Patrick has generally appeared to be in a lighthearted mood throughout the first two weeks of activity this year at Indianapolis, despite the fact that she hasn't been satisfied with the speeds she has extracted from the No. 7 car. Her 10th-place starting position is the worst of her five-year Indy career.
"We went out to dinner in Kansas [at the last IndyCar Series race prior to Indianapolis] at this sort of Asian sushi place and I got an extra fortune in my fortune cookie," she said. "I didn't realize it had a second one and when I turned it over, it says, 'A four-wheeled adventure will soon bring you happiness.'
"That's got to be great, right?"
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.