Commentary

Patrick struggled with car all day before late crash took her out

Danica Patrick led a semi-charmed life in her three previous Indy 500s. A crash on pit road in the race Sunday made it official that this is one month of May she will likely want to forget, writes John Schwarb.

Updated: May 25, 2008, 7:36 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

Danica PatrickJamie Squire/Getty ImagesDanica Patrick, left, and Ryan Briscoe tangled on pit road, ending the day for both.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The most determined march Danica Patrick made during Sunday's Indianapolis 500 was on foot, down pit road to confront Ryan Briscoe.

It was cut short, unsuccessful. Just like her race.

Patrick -- making a fourth Indy 500 start and perhaps her most anticipated after earning her first IndyCar Series win last month in Japan -- never led in the 92nd running and never ran higher than the fifth spot she owned at the start of the race.

On Lap 171 of 200 she pulled the Andretti Green Racing No. 7 into the pits for service, leaving nine seconds later with four tires and fuel. Moments after pulling out and continuing down pit road, she made contact with Team Penske's Briscoe, exiting after his service. Briscoe's right-rear tire made contact with Patrick's left-rear, snapping her suspension and sending her out of the race in 22nd place.

"I was just going down pit lane and as people pull out of their pit boxes and you're on the outside lane, they have to wait until they can blend in," Patrick said. "From what I could tell, it was pretty obvious what happened. What are you going to do?"

When Briscoe saw the replay, he didn't have an answer.

"It confirmed my thoughts. We were both out there trying to win the Indy 500 today, and when it's time to go, we have to go," said Briscoe, who finished 23rd. "But from what I can see, there was still plenty of room on the right side for her to get around and there are people pointing fingers, but that's not the way we are.

"We both have a brake pedal in our cars, and from what I can tell, there was still plenty of room for her to get around me. I was trying to get around [Dan] Wheldon [in the stall ahead], and I was staying in the middle lane. I got ran up in the back, and it's a shame."

After the contact, Patrick pulled to a stop at the end of the pit lane, visibly disgusted. She was pushed back to her pit, where she got out and made a beeline for Briscoe's stall. An Indy Racing League security officer intercepted the 26-year-old and guided her over the pit wall before any confrontation.

"Probably best I didn't get down there anyway," Patrick said.

Patrick's finish was by far her worst in four Brickyard starts. In her celebrated 2005 rookie season she finished fourth after leading 19 laps late, and the past two seasons she finished eighth on the 2.5-mile oval.

Throughout the month, Patrick was fast but not blazing; like her AGR teammates, she was a step behind the leading Target Chip Ganassi Racing tandem of Scott Dixon and Wheldon, 1-2 qualifiers, with Dixon winning from the pole Sunday.

On Pole Day, Patrick held the provisional pole early but was passed as the qualifying order continued and she eventually settled into fifth. Yet she never ventured out for another qualifying attempt, saying there was nothing more in her Dallara-Honda.

"It's not from a lack of trying, given enough time we would have figured it out, but how long is that time -- was it one more run, was it another day? What was it going to be?" she said then. "I think it was pretty apparent through the speeds that Penske and Ganassi found something that worked and found something that made their cars really fast, and we didn't."

As it would turn out, she didn't have anything that worked on the day of the race either. On the very first lap she dropped a spot to sixth as a hard-charging Tomas Scheckter made a pass and she never got back to fifth, much less the front.

"The unfortunate thing is we worked our butts off this month," Patrick said. "We were creeping forward slowly, but surely."

The month of May had other frustrations outside race day. On May 9, Fast Friday, she was involved in a pit road accident when Dale Coyne Racing crewman Chuck Buckman was walking through her pit box and was struck by Patrick's incoming car. Buckman was hospitalized through that weekend with a skull fracture and facial lacerations.

It wasn't an incident Patrick deserved blame for, but it received national attention for a day and was certainly an unwelcome distraction on the eve of Pole Day.

The week after, Patrick was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the second time in her career, and in a story she talked about discovering just months earlier that her 2005 car had more fuel left than she thought she had during the race. She was told to run a fuel-conservation strategy at the end of that 500, falling short in a race won by Wheldon.

Not going for the win that day, she said in the story, was the biggest regret of her life and that she would have gone for it had she known about the extra fuel.

Her team owner at the time, Bobby Rahal, took exception in Saturday's editions of the Indianapolis Star.

"The inference is that we prevented her from winning, which is … completely insulting," Rahal said. "As [then-engineer Ray Leto] will tell you, there was a lot of discussion about where we were on fuel and what was the risk. Ultimately, my decision was made [to conserve] based on the fact that if we had pitted [for fuel], we were going to finish 13th. If we had run out on the last lap, we would have finished 13th."

Thirteenth this Sunday would have been far better than where Patrick ended her fourth Indy 500.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.