In the 2017 Indianapolis 500, one of the biggest stories in the paddock was famous Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso jumping over the IndyCar to race in the biggest open-wheel race in the world. This year for the 102nd running of the race, eyes will shift to the return of Danica Patrick on her farewell tour.
Racing driver Danica Patrick got her start in IndyCar before a NASCAR career. She tried to come back for a one-off race at the Indy 500 two years removed from a full-time ride in the IndyCar series, but once people questioned her commitment to NASCAR she decided against an Indy return, Patrick said at a May 1 news conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I really did believe that I was never going to do it again,” Patrick said at the news conference. “The further I get away from it, the more I don’t want to do it.”
That changed last fall when she decided to close the chapter on her racing career by returning to open-wheel racing and the Indy 500 one last time.
The 36-year-old female racing driver left her mark on IndyCar as a series regular from 2005-11. She was often dubbed IndyCar’s most popular driver and became the first woman to win a major open-wheel race with a 2008 victory in Japan. She’s spent the past few years in NASCAR.
This season, she’ll return to the Brickyard to complete the “Danica Double,” running the Daytona 500 with NASCAR in February and then the Indy 500 at the end of this month. The Double will help Patrick put a bow on her racing career. She’s no doubt hoping for a better finish at Indy than she had in Daytona this year, when she was collected in a crash on lap 101 of 200.
For those looking for another angle on her story, she’s also dating Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Back in an open-wheel car where she got her start, Patrick chose No. 13 for her familiar GoDaddy-sponsored, neon-green Chevrolet running with Ed Carpenter Racing for her final race.
Since Patrick has been away from IndyCar since 2011, she underwent a refresher test and ran 20 laps at the motor speedway in the first week of May. Apparently, the media frenzy even surrounding just this minor event could be compared to her rookie race back in 2005. Patrick called this test Day 1 of anticipation.
“I’ve been waiting to get this day over with for a long time,” Patrick said. “I say that with love. I want to get through that so I can get to the fun part.
“I just wanted to get through today and get more comfortable.”
She qualified fourth in her rookie season, a record for a female driver. She also led 19 laps while then racing for Rahal Letterman Racing on her way to a fourth-place finish. Her best finish at Indy came in 2009 with third place. Overall, she’s run well in the 500, with six of her seven races landing her in the top 10.
So her luck has been pretty favorable at Indy. Maybe with the No. 13 on her car, she’s hoping it will bring her a little more luck. Patrick chose the number, reportedly because she liked it.
Before Patrick went to NASCAR, her final race as an IndyCar regular was cut short and marred by tragedy. Her last race was Oct. 16, 2011, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A 15-car crash on the high-banked, high-speed oval took the life of fellow driver Dan Wheldon, a two-time winner of the Indy 500, including a win earlier that season. The Vegas race was red flagged, and drivers eventually went back out onto the track for some tribute laps to Wheldon.
No one really focused on Patrick’s last race after that.
From there, Patrick took her talents to NASCAR. She started 191 races from 2012 through this year’s Daytona 500. She started from the pole position once but never finished in the top five. She made it into the top 10 seven times and led a total of 64 laps in a stock car.
Patrick won’t be the only woman vying for a spot in the grid of 33 cars. Pippa Mann, a British driver, will look to qualify for the race in a sixth consecutive year with the Dale Coyne team. Mann finished 17th in the 2017 Indy 500, a career-best.