Danica Patrick eases into final race of her career

Published 11:06 pm Friday, May 25, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS — Danica Patrick strolled into Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a sunburn, a surprise gift from an afternoon spent in Green Bay, reading books while lying in the grass with boyfriend Aaron Rodgers.

As retirement comes racing toward her, she’s never been more at ease — except for one thing.

Patrick was looking relaxed at the final media day of her racing career, wearing white cutoff shorts and $500 Golden Goose sneakers — with just a touch of gray hair at her temples — as she admitted she has never been as nervous as she is heading into her final Indianapolis 500.

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She recalled sharing breakfast with her father, the man who led her into racing and helped her become one of the most recognizable female athletes in the world. Now, 36, she asked him about Sunday’s show on the stage where Patrick has always embraced the spotlight.

“I was like, ‘Dad, what do you think the chances are? Do you think I got a shot? I obviously know I have a shot, but let’s talk real, like father-daughter. What have you seen out there?’” Patrick said.

“I’m asking him because I know there’s a chance. I’ve been saying the last few days there’s a difference between the beginning, when I signed up for it — I was hopeful it would go well — there’s a difference between where it is now. Now it’s not just a hope, it’s more of a reality that I’ve really got a shot at it.”

It, of course, is a win, and it would be a remarkable feat should it come to pass — icing on the cake for a driver for years criticized as not good enough for a resume light on wins.

Her farewell tour ends at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She led laps and finished fourth as a rookie in 2005, was a career-best third in 2009 and the only time she finished outside the top 10 in seven starts was when she was involved in a crash on pit road.

She moved to NASCAR full-time after the 2011 season, in part because that’s where sponsor GoDaddy wanted her to be, and because it was time for the only female driver to win an IndyCar race to try something new. NASCAR started out OK, and Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500, and to this day she’s the only woman to lead laps in both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500.

But she never got comfortable in stock cars. She never won a race, never scored a top-five finish.

And just like that, after six full seasons, she was done. Her sponsorship had dried up and Patrick had to figure out her next move. The girl from Illinois, who left home at 16 to move to Europe and chase her dreams of being a professional race car driver, had no more racing ahead of her.

Patrick is not a quitter, though. She lives her life without looking back. So she was determined to go out her own way, which was through a “Danica Double,” the 500-mile showcase races at Daytona and Indianapolis.

Daytona was merely OK. She was in a one-off ride that brought her NASCAR career full circle, and it ended with the kind of crash that happens to everyone at least once in a restrictor-plate race. But Indy? Well, this is where she sparkles, and landing a ride capable of winning the race was important.

She got a fast Chevrolet from Ed Carpenter Racing and qualified seventh, next to teammate Spencer Pigot. Carpenter is on the pole, and three of his entries are a real threat to challenge the quartet of Chevys from Roger Penske.

Patrick has a very real opportunity to put the past six seasons of disappointment behind her, and just maybe have one last 500-mile run for fun.

“There were some high points in NASCAR. It wasn’t a complete failure by any means,” she said. “Coming back and having this be my final race, it wouldn’t have been possible if I would have finished up in a normal way. Normally, usually when you choose your retirement, you finish up at the end of a season. I would have finished up in NASCAR. It kind of felt like it wasn’t really finished properly, that’s what led me to think, ‘What else can I do to finish it up?’

“That brought me back here,” she said. “It wouldn’t be so dramatic if I wasn’t gone for seven years. I can see Indy on the way out the way I saw it on the way in.”

There’s no turning back after Sunday, either. Win or lose, this is it for Patrick, who has crafted a business empire that makes her peers jealous. She designs a line of fitness clothing, has a book and wine label, and it was announced this week she will be the first female host of ESPN’s ESPYs awards show in July.

“The businesswoman that she is, I admire,” said Penske driver Simon Pagenaud. “That’s a quality not everybody has. She’s transformed her career into a business and we wish we could do the same, quite frankly.”

She’s also impressed her peers at Indy. Although she struggled early with the weight of the Indy car steering wheel, and it took her some time to adapt to racing in traffic again, none of the drivers in the field are surprised to see her starting in the third row.

“She’s done a great job getting up to speed, not making mistakes. She’s got a fast car,” said Penske driver Josef Newgarden, last year’s IndyCar champion. “It’s going to be a matter of how she handles the full pack. And I don’t know, maybe she’s going to be fine. She was always really good here, and in the pack, and she could school many of the IndyCar drivers at their own game back in the day. She’s got a great shot because she has a really good car underneath her and a good team.”

That’s also what makes Patrick nervous. She has the car to win, and wreckers or checkers, this final race might be how she is remembered. But she also knows that nobody can stand in her way but her.

She proved that by going bungee jumping, even though she’s always been afraid of heights.

“I just like to know that if I want to do something, that I am brave enough and confident enough to do it,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m not still scared. It’s not easy for me after. But I like to know that I can get past the fear if I have to. I have this real habit of taking on challenges. The ESPYs, right? Things like that. Going to NASCAR, driving IndyCars, moving to England.

“I just have a habit for pushing myself to uncomfortable spaces, making them comfortable for me. At least just making them comfortable enough to be able to manage.”

After 500 more miles Sunday, Patrick will be free to test all the limits she wants. She doesn’t know what’s next, per se. She wants to make waffles for breakfast, enjoy Sundays like normal people and cheer for her new boyfriend and his Green Bay Packers.

Maybe spend a few more summer days kicking back in the Wisconsin grass.

“In the summer, there’s like farmers’ markets. I can’t wait for that,” she said. “The one thing that I am definitely looking forward to less of is less stress. I’m OK with less of that. I’m OK with transitioning into other things, finding a little bit of happiness and joy each day, less polarization of emotions. I’m ready for that.”