Danica quiets her critics with landmark victory in Japan

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The final weekend in which American open-wheel racing is split into two entities certainly started with a bang.

With a third of the IndyCar field watching from Long Beach, where the Champ Car World Series is gathered for its grand finale, Danica Patrick scored her long-awaited first IndyCar Series victory. She claimed the rain-delayed Japan Indy 300 by 5.86 seconds over Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon.

Patrick led only three of 200 laps, and she certainly didn't have the fastest car on the Twin Ring Motegi oval nestled in the mountains northwest of Tokyo. Her win was the product of a disciplined final stint that allowed her to stretch a 22-gallon tank of ethanol further than anyone else.

But a win is a win is a win.

And as any driver who has won a race on fuel mileage can attest -- most recently, Jimmie Johnson in last week's NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Phoenix -- they pay the same prize money and there's no asterisk in the record book.

After 50 tries, Danica Patrick is a winner in IndyCar.

"Finally," she said, fighting back tears in Victory Lane. "Finally. I knew there was a reason I always liked coming to Japan."

Patrick has been answering the question "When are you gonna win?" for the past three years, ever since she shot to prominence in her third IndyCar Series race. It was also at Motegi, where in 2005 while driving for Rahal Letterman Racing, she qualified on the outside of the front row and led 32 laps on the way to a fourth-place finish.

A few weeks later, when Patrick nearly nabbed pole position for the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and led laps late in the race -- before slowing for fuel-mileage concerns -- expectations were raised even higher.

The rest of Patrick's rookie campaign brought three poles, but her race craft still needed work and fourth place remained a personal glass ceiling through the end of the 2006 season. At that point, she made her most significant career move to date, leaving Bobby Rahal's team in favor of a lucrative multiyear contract with Andretti Green Racing and sponsor Motorola.

The move to the four-car AGR juggernaut helped Patrick raise her game, and she made the podium three times in 2007 with third- and second-place finishes. But a win remained elusive.

Until Sunday in Japan.

Thanks to crew chief Kyle Moyer's fuel-strategy gamble, Danica took the checkered flag for the first time since winning the Professional Division of the 2002 Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

It's arguably the most significant motorsports achievement to date for a female driver. But Patrick played it humbly.

"It wasn't even a matter of doing anything different," she said. "It was everything coming together with a bit of luck and good pit strategy.

"I feel like a wuss crying, but it's been a long time coming. Finally …"

She would never admit it, but by the way she broke down in Victory Lane, it was obvious that a great weight had been lifted from Patrick's shoulders.

"I'm so happy for her and so proud of her," team owner Michael Andretti exclaimed. "It's always been a question of when -- not if -- she was going to win, and I'm so proud of the way she did it. She did a really good job sticking to the numbers while still keeping her speed.

"I love this girl. She is just a first-class individual and I'm so happy that monkey is off her back. You'll see -- there is going to be more of this to come."

After qualifying was rained out, Patrick started the Motegi race in sixth place based on her championship standing. She held that position for most of the race until the final stint, when the fuel strategies began to play out.

Most of the leaders pitted under yellow with 57 laps remaining. Patrick and Castroneves made an additional stop to top off with 52 laps to go.

At that point in the race, 51 laps was the most anyone had run on a tank of ethanol. And that mark included some fuel-saving laps run under caution behind the pace car.

Dixon was the leader, but the Ganassi team seemed to switch his strategy from speed to fuel saving with about 30 laps to go. When the last quarter of the race was run without incident, the decision didn't pan out, and the New Zealander relinquished a 3.6-second lead when he pitted on Lap 195. Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan pitted a lap later, leaving Patrick and Castroneves to battle for the win.

Helio backed way off to make the flag, and Patrick quickly capitalized to claim the historic milestone.

"I can't say that the last stint was exactly hard," Patrick explained. "You're taking it easy and taking care of the car. I did feel at the end that it was fast and I was managing to save fuel while still keeping the speed. And I heard from Kyle that all I needed to beat was Helio.

"So when I saw him I knew I had been saving a little extra throughout the stint. I knew he was the one to beat, and I didn't want to make the mistake of not pushing really hard to get by him."

As usual, Danica had her close-knit family by her side in Japan, including mom Bev, dad T.J., and husband Paul Hospenthal.

"She's worked so hard, and I'm so proud of this team," Bev Patrick said. "We finally got the win that everybody has been waiting for, and she's been waiting for it more than them."

"It's the best day of my life," T.J. Patrick added. "I've dreamed about it and I'm so proud of her. For all the grief she gets over it, she just proved to everyone that she can win races, and she's going to win a lot more."

For many drivers, gaining that first win unlocks potential they didn't know was there. Andretti is convinced that will be the case with Danica.

"She wanted to win so bad," Andretti said. "She's such a competitor, so I think it's more a monkey off her back for herself, not everybody else. That's the type of individual she is.

"Now that it's off, I think you're going to see a different person. I think this is the first of many."

One thing is for sure: Danica won't have to answer those questions about if she's ever going to win anymore.

In fact, in his postrace interview, ESPN reporter Jack Arute already gave her a taste of what to expect from now on:

"Danica, when are you going to win again?"

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.