Danica Patrick's career comes full circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
INDIANAPOLIS -- Before Danica Patrick took a lap in an IndyCar Tuesday afternoon, her first since October 2011, she could see a sea of photographers in front of her car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It reminded her of how special it was to be at a place she considers home, a place where her fourth-place Indianapolis 500 finish as a rookie in 2005 made her a household name. She will finish her racing career May 27 with the 2018 Indianapolis 500.
"We need a before and after of my 2005 pit road gaggle of photographers and 2018 because it felt similar," Patrick said. "It was really a cool feeling. So it was just kind of really full circle."
While the steering seemed heavy, Patrick and the Ed Carpenter Racing team methodically went through the steps to get her acclimated to the car and had her going 220 mph after a couple hours Tuesday and then a day of testing Wednesday.
"It always feels like home here at Indy -- the track feels so familiar, everything from the walk to and from pit lane," Patrick said.
While her return was maybe more of a struggle than she had wished, she appeared ready for the month ahead. In November, without sponsorship in NASCAR, she announced she would end her six-year stock-car run with the 2018 Daytona 500 and then return for a final race at the 2018 Indianapolis 500.
"Last year was just kind of an odd year," Patrick said. "With having a sponsor leave, which is a scenario I had never been in before, with not really feeling as much hope as I wanted racing, that was kind of a frustrating position to be in. And [I was] feeling kind of ready to move on but not in the way of being done at Homestead. It was, like, there's a better way to do this.
"There's a better way to honor the run in my career as well as the fans, and I especially can't think of a better place to end than here where it all began."
Her test at Indianapolis began with just learning the car again ... and remembering what got her there.
There's a better way to honor the run in my career as well as the fans, and I especially can't think of a better place to end than here where it all began.Danica Patrick on racing in her final Indianapolis 500
"I definitely feel still overwhelmed enough with everything going on, just driving, the helmet moving, all kinds of things going on," Patrick said. "I'm not looking in my mirrors, checking my dash all the time, moving buttons around. ... I feel like I've built my career on trusting my ass.
"I think that's very important here at Indy, is to not drive beyond what you feel is possible with the car because it will bite you. Your gut is usually right. The feel of your butt is right."
Patrick said seven years is long enough to forget how things feel. She said the belts and headrests in IndyCar are critical as far as feel and performance, and the turbo in the car is much different.
"I slept much better last night," Patrick said. "I think the stress of the anticipation of yesterday -- in an 'I'm nervous, how is this going to go?' unknown sense -- was weighing on me a fair amount heavier than I really knew.
"I could see it popping up in other ways and getting concerned about every other thing that was coming up in my life. So I slept much better last night and thankfully [Wednesday] is running really smooth. ... [This test] was about building confidence, not breaking it."
The 2018 "retirement tour" for Patrick didn't start out great. She had to scramble to get a Daytona 500 ride and ended up with Premium Motorsports in a car with her former JR Motorsports crew chief Tony Eury Jr. helping her out. Her Daytona 500 ended when she was caught up in a multi-car crash.
"I would say from a preparation standpoint on the car side with Ed and the whole team, I feel more prepared on that side of things," Patrick said comparing the Indy 500 effort to the Daytona 500. "I feel this is a well-thought-out, planned out, well-timed, fully fledged effort versus Daytona came pretty quick.
"Tony Eury Jr. did a great job of massaging on the car as much as he could in the four weeks before the race that he could. I felt like we were competitive in the race. We weren't the fastest car, but we were competitive. I feel like that was a good effort, but this is one that had more time to go through the details and be prepared."
And this is one where she knows she has performed well in the past.
"I remember watching the Indy 500 the first year I wasn't in it, and I missed it," Patrick said. "I remember that feeling and as time wore on, I missed that relevancy of being in the game, being someone like before the race when they're like, 'Who do you think is going to win today?' My name didn't pop up in NASCAR.
"Other than that first Daytona 500 when I was on the pole, most of the races weren't like that. I missed being relevant. So I'm going to try to achieve that this month. It is going to be hard because everybody is really good and they've been at it and I wasn't for a while."