INDIANAPOLIS -- Danica Patrick might be preparing for her last Indianapolis 500.
Rumors that Patrick would jump to NASCAR have dogged her for years and even have been acknowledged by IndyCar officials. The 29-year-old, who has driven in both IndyCar and the NASCAR Nationwide series this year and last, was vague when asked about her plans Thursday.
"I suppose anything is possible," she said. "But I know for me, I haven't made any of those decisions yet."
Patrick's success as a female driver has made her the face of the IndyCar Series since 2005, even though she has just one win in 98 tries. The pressure she has put on herself has reached a peak heading into the Indy 500 on May 29.
"Actually, I feel like I get more nervous every year," she said. "I'm more nervous coming into it this year than last year. Maybe it's because you're getting older and on some level you think you have less of them to do, I don't know."
Her improved performance in NASCAR has fueled speculation that her IndyCar days might be nearing an end. She struggled last year during her first year of stock car racing, but she qualified fourth and briefly led the Nationwide race at Daytona this February before finishing 14th. The next month, she placed fourth in the Las Vegas Nationwide race, the best finish for a woman in a national NASCAR race. She'll return to NASCAR for the Nationwide race at New Hampshire in June.
"The NASCAR stuff I've done has been good, too," she said. "Having a fourth at Vegas was great, leading at Daytona in the Nationwide race. So far, it's been a good year."
Patrick's foray into NASCAR was made possible by her success in IndyCar.
After she finished fourth in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, she quickly became a larger-than-life figure in a 5-foot-2, 100-pound frame, the biggest draw in a series that desperately needed a transcendent star.
After she emerged, things changed. Expectations followed. Pressure mounted. She finally won her first race in Japan in 2008, but she began to chafe under the intense scrutiny.
Slowly, the smile that Patrick once eagerly flashed disappeared. Fits of anger and tiffs with other drivers cropped up and sullied her reputation.
The turn in public opinion culminated when she was booed during Indy 500 qualifying last year after she said during a live interview being piped over the loudspeakers that her team gave her an inadequate car. She decided after that incident that honesty, at least publicly, isn't always the best policy.
"Hopefully I've gotten more savvy and wise with my personality, my tactics, my antics, as I've had some over the years," she said. "I guess I came to find out as I grew older that being really honest, emotional all the time, while it is me and I don't regret anything, it makes for work."
After last year's blowup, former teammate Tony Kanaan called her out, saying Patrick wasn't happy with herself and she needed to change her attitude.
"Kind of eliminating that kind of stuff as much as possible has been easier for everyone," Patrick said. "It is easier. It's less energy put toward things that aren't about going faster."
That doesn't mean she doesn't feel the emotion. She just won't talk about it.
"While it is me and I don't regret anything, it makes for work," she said. "It makes for work because people talk about it, people have opinions about it. As much as you don't care, they still affect you and you have to deal with the situation."
She's complaining less this year and, though she says she's nervous, seems more relaxed. She is in 15th place in the IndyCar standings, with her best performance a seventh at Long Beach.
"This year I've made a lot of passes in the race, I've been fast in the race, I've even been relatively fast in practice," she said.
Her good driving hasn't made up for her poor starts.
"I'm just not great at qualifying," said Patrick, who hasn't started higher than 17th on the grid. "I get out there, think I'm doing a much better job. I should be much faster, and I'm not. I don't know what it is, but I have to figure it out."
Perhaps Indianapolis is just what she needs. She has started and finished in the top 10 in five of her six races at the 2½-mile oval, leading 19 laps in 2005.
"The first Indy was definitely the one I remember," she said. "It's my favorite race I've ever done. It's the most memorable race I've ever done, for sure."
She finished third at Indy in 2009. Now, she wants to conquer the track and win the Indy 500 before she runs out of chances.
"So many people have that story as to how they could have maybe won the Indy 500, which is for me the ultimate goal," she said. "I would imagine for a lot of people it's the ultimate goal. It's definitely high up on the list."
For all the money she could make in NASCAR, she still feels there's still something special about the Indy 500.
"I would go so far as to say I don't think there's any other event that any team works as hard at as the Indy 500 because of what it really means, what it can do for a driver, a team, anybody involved in a good day or a victory."