KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – While Jim Nabors won’t be part of the prerace ceremonies for Sunday’s Jeff Kyle 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there’s always a chance Danica Patrick might be humming Nabors’ traditional tune (Back Home Again in) Indiana as she makes her way around racing’s most hallowed grounds.
Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), made quite a name for herself in an Indy car from 2005 to 2011 competing in the Indianapolis 500.
She burst onto the scene at Indy in May 2005, when she stunned the world by leading three times for 19 laps and finishing fourth in her first 500 – becoming the first woman to lead laps and score a top-five finish in the historic race.
She set numerous records during her Indy 500 debut and set the tone early when she posted the fastest lap on the opening day of practice. She went on to set the fastest practice lap five times during the month – more than any other driver – including Pole Day and Carburetion Day.
Patrick’s practice lap of 229.880 mph on Pole Day was the fastest of any driver during the month and the fastest turned by any woman in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. During her qualification attempt, Patrick made an impressive save as her car bobbled in turn one on her first lap, earning her rave reviews for her car control by longtime Speedway observers. She ended up qualifying fourth, the best-ever starting position for a woman in the race.
On race day, with 11 laps remaining in the 200-lap event, Patrick blew past leader Dan Wheldon and held the point until lap 194, when she was forced to slow down in order to conserve fuel to make it to the finish. Her efforts earned her Rookie of the Year honors.
Patrick scored six top-10 finishes in seven starts at Indianapolis and qualified 10th or better five times. Her third-place result in 2009 is the best finish ever for a woman in the history of the 500.
While Patrick has earned history-making results at Indianapolis in her IndyCar career, she has yet to experience the same level of success at the 2.5-mile track in a stock car. In her first Sprint Cup start at the track in 2013, she finished 30th and, last year, her day at the iconic track was cut short by rear-gear issues and she ended up 42nd. In Patrick’s lone Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis in 2012, she finished 35th after getting caught up in an accident.
As she returns to Indianapolis this week, Patrick is hoping her success in the 500 will finally carry over to the Jeff Kyle 400.
DANICA PATRICK, Driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How special is Indianapolis Motor Speedway to you?
“I love going to Indy. I love driving through the tunnel and coming into the track – and even when it’s empty – just seeing the Pagoda. It’s just such a special place and I have so many great memories from there. No matter what car I’m driving, I always feel the track’s magnitude and just how special of a place it is.”
Compare driving a stock car at Indianapolis to driving an Indy car.
“It’s just about finding a balance with the car out there, which is no different in a stock car than in an Indy car. You’re just trying to find a balance. All you’re doing in an Indy car is trimming it out and, if I could have more downforce in these cars, I’d probably take it because, in an Indy car, we learned very quickly that it’s about how much throttle you could carry around. The stock cars get very low in the corners, and that can be a little bit of a danger in an Indy car, especially if you get just a little bit too low and get a little loose. So that’s a little bit different, I suppose.”
When you were in Indy cars, which turn gave you the most trouble at Indy?
“Turn one. I always feel like turn one is just – it has the most amount of issues, for whatever reason. I don’t know if it’s partly because you get there a little quicker because (turns) two, three and four are a little bit more smooth and the arc is nice and smooth through the corner. I don’t feel like there’s as much adjusting. I don’t know what it is, but turn one has always been the issue no matter what car I’ve been in. So that was my answer for Indy cars, and it’s my answer for stock cars. It always gives you that little bit of a loose feeling getting in, at times. And, with these cars especially, I feel you have to set them up for the long haul. You have to set them up for the whole run as opposed to, in an Indy car, they have so much downforce and grip that you could set it up and it’d stay like that through the whole race or the whole run. So there’s a little bit of sacrificing and compromising on the car as far as what you have at the beginning so you have a good car at the end.”
Talk about what it’s like when you drive through the tunnel at Indianapolis and get ready for a race weekend.
“I think the best thing about coming back is that it feels familiar and it feels comfortable. I like seeing it. It feels very comfortable, very familiar. I just feel like I’ve had a lot of different experiences there that can help me and, again, it’s just a special place where I feel like, from the beginning, I’ve always really believed that you have to show this track respect and it will hopefully show you the respect back. I’ve always thought that and, especially in IndyCar, this place can bite you pretty big. I don’t think it’s too much different in a stock car, to be honest. It’s just a very familiar place. We spent so much time there during the month of May that it becomes like a second home, almost. It’s not like the Indy 500 was a three-day show. You spent just about the entire month there. My parents live outside of Indy, as do my sister and her family, so it’s nice to come back.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine