INDIANAPOLIS - Danica Patrick had a win in the Indianapolis 500 in sight.
With only 17 laps to go, only a pair of former winners — Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon — stood between IndyCar racing’s glamour girl and the biggest victory of her life Sunday.
A gaffe in the pits cost her positions early in the race, but she still had her chance, thanks to a caution flag that set up a final restart.
Once again, though, Patrick came up just a little bit short — even if she is getting closer.
“I had a lot of momentum and I thought I was going to pass Dan on the restart, but that didn’t happen,” Patrick said. “He went low and I wasn’t going to be able to make an outside pass at that point.”
Patrick wound up having to settle for third place, trailing winner Castroneves and runner-up Wheldon past the checkered flag.
But the driver who burst into the national consciousness and set off “DanicaMania” when she became the first woman to lead laps and finished fourth in the 2005 Indy 500 was happy with her performance.
And she was particularly grateful for the guidance of longtime racing star and Andretti Green Racing co-owner Michael Andretti, who kept her calm and focused throughout a hot, frustrating afternoon.
“He’s a very passionate guy,” Patrick said. “He gets very into it. But he was just staying very calm.
“He’d tell me ‘Good job’ every now and then, and he was obviously telling me when to cool down and stuff like that,” she added. “The most important thing about that, having a voice in your ear, is (for him) to be calm.”
That was one reason Andretti took over as Patrick’s race strategist this year, believing the sometimes tempestuous 27-year-old needed a steadying influence.
He was proud of Patrick, who kept her temper in check despite making a pit mistake that cost her four positions at midrace and then being passed on a different restart by Ryan Briscoe, the same driver who crashed into her car and knocked her out of last year’s Indy 500.
“I believe if she would have passed Dan, I think she had a shot at Helio,” he added. “But, unfortunately, she didn’t get him on the restart because Dan was getting the tow from Helio. If she would have gotten him, it would have been an interesting finish.”
When Patrick slid through her pit box on a stop during a caution period on the 100th lap, the mistake dropped her from sixth to 10th and potentially spoiled her race.
“I’m really sorry, guys,” she told her crew on the radio. “All my fault. I’m really sorry.”
“It’s OK. You’ll get it back,” Andretti said quietly.
She listened to her boss, keeping her head later in the race when Briscoe jumped the gun and zoomed past on a restart on lap 141.
Patrick complained to Andretti and, again, he told her to stay calm. Within two laps, Indy Racing League officials ordered Briscoe to back off and let Patrick move past.
At the end, Patrick, who has four top 10 finishes in five Indy starts, was smiling.
“It was a good day overall and, for the tough month that we had, to keep our heads down all day, it turned out pretty good,” she said.
AGR teammate Hideki Mutoh finished 10th, but it wasn’t a great day for the rest of the team. Marco Andretti, Michael’s 22-year-old son, crashed out on the first lap, and team veteran Tony Kanaan crashed while running third.
“But still we had a top three and it speaks well for our team that every year that we’ve been here as a team we’ve had a top three,” Michael Andretti said. “That’s cool.”
It was third year in a row that three women have been in the Indy lineup, and it was by far the best day yet for the small female contingent in the 33-car field as driver-owner Sarah Fisher finished 17th and Milka Duno 20th.
“We learned a lot,” Fisher said. “This is only our second year in the 500 as a team. We had amazing pit stops. Every time I came in, we gained spots. We’re going to get a little bit better car, and we’ll come back next year.”
Fisher finished on the lead lap, while Duno, who crashed in her two previous starts here, was a lap off the pace and the last car running.
“I’m in Indianapolis and I finished the race,” Duno said. “I’m happy for that.”
Patrick was satisfied, too, although she couldn’t help but think what might have been.
“I think it was a good day,” she said. “I’m really happy. I wish it would have ended up a little bit better than what it did, but that’s the way it goes here, and that’s what makes this place so awesome and frustrating.”
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