Is this Danica's year? She's not the favorite, but don't bet against it

Danica Patrick enters her fourth Indy 500 with a better chance to win than she's ever had before. Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- Danica Patrick isn't the favorite to win the Indy 500 Sunday (noon, ABC), not in the betting odds, anyway.

But Patrick can win this race. She knows it and the other drivers know it.

It won't take a bizarre fluke for the reigning queen of open-wheel racing to drink some milk in Victory Lane.

In fact, her chances of winning this time are better than any woman has ever had at Indy.

OK, that's not saying much. Other than Patrick, no woman has ever sat on the starting grid at the Brickyard with any realistic hope of winning.

No woman had won an IndyCar event until Patrick did it in Japan in April. And don't let the skeptics convince you she got lucky by winning on fuel strategy.

The best of the best have won races on fuel strategy. It's part of the game, and Patrick has learned how to play it to her advantage.

Not everyone knows it, but Patrick is one of the top 10 drivers in the IndyCar Series.

"I told her a long time ago that I thought a lot of her, and it's not because she's pretty," said two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. "I respect her a lot more than some of the male drivers out here because she knows what she's doing on the track."

And Patrick knows her chances Sunday are the best of her career. Some might think that adds more pressure, and Patrick admitted she still feels pressure to win this race. But driver Sarah Fisher thinks Patrick is more calm now.

Fisher and Patrick didn't get along in the past, but their relationship has improved this year.

"Part of it is that win took a lot of pressure off her and really relaxed her as a person," Fisher said. "I never had that pressure because I've never been in a car that was capable of winning. Everyone has expected so much of her, so I think that win changed her and helped her feel better about things."

In her first three starts at Indy, Patrick felt she had to prove herself. She has a new perspective now: Just do what she knows she's capable of doing at Indy and win it.

Patrick shocked the racing world as a rookie in 2005, becoming the first woman to lead laps at Indy and finishing fourth. And she finished eighth in the past two Indy 500s.

But Patrick didn't enter any of those races with the sincere belief she would win. This race is different. Patrick not only believes she can win, she expects to win.

"I feel more confident every day," Patrick said. "That's very important here."

There's an air of arrogance in Patrick, a hard edge underneath her celebrated beauty.
Nothing is wrong with that. Any successful race car driver has a little "I'm-better-than-you" confidence factor.

And her confidence soars at Indy. Something about Indianapolis Motor Speedway brings out the best in Patrick, who races better on the 2.5-mile rectangle than any other track in the series.

"It's a place where you have to be patient and consistent for the entire day," Patrick said. "I know we have a strong car, so the key thing is to put yourself in position to win it at the end."

She did that here in 2005. She did it when she took the checkered flag at Japan. And she can do it again Sunday.

Patrick's chances are good, but the task is tougher than in previous years. The merger between the IRL and Champ Car has produced the best field in a decade with more quality teams and drivers on the 33-car grid.

Even so, the winner likely will come from the first three rows, among three teams.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon start next to each other on the front row. They are the guys to beat.

Penske Racing's duo of Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe also have everything they need to win the race.

And two of Patrick's Andretti Green Racing teammates -- Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti -- are as hungry as she is to win at Indy.

Beating those six alone would take a spectacular effort and a flawless day for Patrick. If it happens, her marketing appeal, which already is through the roof, will approach Tiger Woods status.

And the rumors of Patrick going to NASCAR will become the talk of the racing world. Sprint Cup team owners will make Patrick offers that go far beyond her earning potential in IndyCar.

Danica Patrick

The Indy 500 is the reason I started racing. The dream of winning this race has been my single focus since I was a kid. Through all the ups and down, it's the one thing that kept me going. And now it's within my grasp.

-- Danica Patrick

It isn't because they suddenly will believe she's a great driver, but potential sponsors will tell team owners, "We'll pay whatever you want if you put Patrick in a Cup car."

Chip Ganassi put Dario Franchitti in a Cup car this year believing the sponsors would follow the 2007 Indy 500 winner to NASCAR. They didn't. Tough economic times were a factor, but sponsors also didn't see Franchitti having national appeal.

Patrick already has national appeal. She is a household name and a sponsor's dream for bringing attention to its product.

From a diversity standpoint, adding Patrick is a no-brainer for NASCAR. But the big pot of cash NASCAR could offer might not work in Patrick's case.

She's making more money now than any driver in American open-wheel racing. Patrick is the biggest star in a league on the rise, thanks to the merger with Champ Car. So this is a battle the IRL could win.

And Patrick understands how difficult the transition is from Indy cars to stock cars. She's seen firsthand the struggles of Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Patrick Carpentier and Juan Pablo Montoya.

All of those drivers went to NASCAR with more success and more experience in racing than she has. But Patrick's sponsorship power could put her in a quality car from the start -- something none of the drivers have.

It's fun to speculate over, but it's not on Patrick's radar screen at the moment. Sunday's race is all that matters.

"The Indy 500 is the reason I started racing," she said. "The dream of winning this race has been my single focus since I was a kid. Through all the ups and down, it's the one thing that kept me going. And now it's within my grasp."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.