Kentucky Speedway

Danica returning to state a winner

Danica Patrick has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Twice. She's yukked it up with Letterman. Just last month, she found herself seated on the front row at the ESPYs next to Becks and Posh.

Yet, of all the cool things that have happened to a former cheerleader from Roscoe, Ill., since she became a national sports phenomenon at the 2005 Indianapolis 500, one moment tops all.

Patrick's telephone rang. Jay-Z was making the call.

The “retired” hip-hop star was plotting his return. He had a video treatment in mind for his comeback song, Show Me What You Got.

Casting himself as a hipper James Bond, Jay-Z wanted Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to co-star.

Which is how Patrick found herself in Monaco, racing a Pagani Zonda Roadster against Dale Jr., in a Ferrari F430 Spider, for the 2006 video.

“I'd always been a Jay-Z fan, and this was his comeback video, so that was huge,” Patrick said Wednesday in a phone interview. “Beyonce was there. It was the first time I'd met Dale Jr. It was really cool.”

The phenomenon that is Danica Mania returns to Kentucky Speedway Aug. 9 for the Meijer Indy Car 300.

It will be the fourth time Patrick has raced in the commonwealth, but the first year that the 26-year-old driver has competed here as a winner on the IndyCar Series.

This is also the first time since Patrick entered the nation's consciousness with a fourth-place run in the '05 Indy 500 that she has started to receive negative public feedback. It has arisen from a series of widely publicized run-ins she's had with other IRL drivers.

The good news first. On April 19, at Japan's Twin Ring Motegi racetrack, Patrick became the first woman ever to win a race in a major-league, open-wheel racing series.

You can pan the win if you want. Fact is, it did come against a somewhat watered-down field. Longtime IRL stars Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. had jumped to NASCAR.

Open-wheel racing is reunified this year, but Patrick's victory came on the weekend that the teams from the old Champ Car World Series were competing in Long Beach, Calif.

Still, Patrick beat established IRL stars Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon and Helio Castroneves among others, so her victory was hardly a walkover.

Best for Danica, it ended the Anna Kournikova comparisons forever. Not that it's reduced the pressure Patrick feels to win again.

“I still have the same nerves before every race that I had before I won,” she said. “Nothing has really changed in the way I feel. I want to win races.”

Momentum from her breakthrough victory has been all but non-existent. In the 10 races since, Patrick has only one top-five finish — a fifth at Nashville.

Since her tearful post-race victory moment at Motegi, the lasting images of Patrick in 2008 have been from her temper.

With only 29 laps left in this year's Indy 500, she was running seventh when a wreck on pit road with Ryan Briscoe took her out of the race.

The video of a fuming Patrick's subsequent march down pit road toward Briscoe's pit got more air time on TV than anything race winner Dixon did.

Just weeks ago in a practice session at Mid-Ohio, an incident in practice led Patrick to the pit of fellow female racer Milka Duno.

A YouTube video of that confrontation — with Patrick pleading of Duno “I just want to know if you saw me?” and the Venezuelan responding by throwing a towel at Danica's face — has more than 327,000 views.

I asked Patrick if she thought the glaring spotlight that shines on her post-race incidents are a result more of her fame or of a society still uneasy with public shows of assertiveness from females.

“I don't have an answer,” she said. “I'm very fortunate to be in the position where people are interested in what I do. The more popular you get, the more people who are watching what you do.”

With that in mind, Patrick suggests that she's going to try to move any future post-race issues with competitors to more private settings.

“For anybody, no matter what job you do, there are appropriate times and places to approach co-workers,” she said. “We're no different. And I am aware of that.”

On the racetrack, Patrick's greatest successes in IndyCar have come on oval tracks. So, on paper, Kentucky Speedway (a mile-and-a-half oval) should be one of her best venues.

Yet her three prior runs in Sparta have yielded lackluster results, an eighth and two 16th-place finishes.

Patrick notes she started on the pole at Kentucky in 2005 but had a gearbox issue that sabotaged a strong car. Last year, a good run was foiled when she spun coming out of the pits and wrecked.

“My results haven't reflected the runs I've had there,” Patrick said. “I love going to Kentucky. I like the track. Hopefully, my ‘good runs' will end with some good results there.”

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