Las Vegas Is Last Stop in Danica Patrick's IndyCar Career

October 17, 2011 - 4:13 PM

NASCAR Danica Patrick Auto Racing

In this July 1, 2011, photo, Danica Patrick gets ready to get into her car during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. Patrick will hold a news conference Thursday, Aug. 25, and is expected to announce her 2012 move to NASCAR. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that Patrick was finalizing a deal to drive fulltime for JR Motorsports in the second-tier Nationwide Series. An advisory said Patrick will announce her 2012 plans while "putting the rumors to rest with the `real story in her own words.'" (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Not long after posting the fastest practice time at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Danica Patrick joined her fellow drivers to turn a few laps under the neon lights of The Strip.

"Yep my car is parked on las Vegas blvd," she posted on Twitter just before driving around one of the most famous streets in the world.

Patrick will make her final appearance as a full-time IndyCar driver this weekend on the 1.5-mile oval at LVMS before heading off to NASCAR.

The first woman to win an IndyCar race and lead the Indianapolis 500, she's one of the most marketable stars in auto racing, so closing out her open-wheel run just up Interstate 15 from all the glitz and glam of The Strip seems like a fitting finale.

"Viva Las Vegas, baby," Patrick said.

Patrick got her start in IndyCar in 2005, kicking off a seven-year career that had plenty of successes and missteps, on and off the track.

She had a superb start, becoming the first woman to lead the Indy 500 her inaugural season, when she ended up finishing fourth, then became the first woman to win an IndyCar race in 2008, riding fuel strategy to win at Japan.

Despite early career suggestions that she was overmatched in IndyCar, Patrick has finished no lower than 12th in the season standings — her high was fifth in 2009 — and has 63 top-10 finishes in 115 career starts.

She also became one of the most recognizable athletes in any sport, those racy Super Bowl ads and magazine swimsuit shoots turning her into a crossover star who drew non-racing fans to the sport.

It wasn't all smiles, though.

Known for sometimes being prickly — particularly early in her career — Patrick put herself in some not-so-flattering situations because of her strong competitive drive.

In 2007, she got into a confrontation with Dan Wheldon after a practice-lap collision at Milwaukee and the next year walked down the pit box to approach Ryan Briscoe after contact at the Indy 500. She also had a famous spat with fellow female driver Milka Duno that included a couple of tossed towels.

Confrontations are fairly common between drivers and Patrick probably took a little extra heat because she's a woman, but she didn't help herself much by calling out her team on the public address system during an interview at the Brickyard last year, leading to a chorus of boos from the fans.

Despite the highs and lows, Patrick has enjoyed the ride.

"A lot of times you learn more from the mistakes than you do from doing things right," she said. "So it's all part of the process and the journey. In the end, the journey is the fun thing once you've accomplished what you want, you just set another goal. I wouldn't change anything."

Patrick's biggest accomplishment may have been bringing visibility to a sport that has been struggling at the gate and in the ratings.

With her telegenic looks and marketing savvy, she gave the series a lift, giving it attention from fans who may have never heard of IndyCar, much less paid attention to it.

Patrick's departure leaves a big exposure hole at IndyCar, where CEO Randy Bernard has been working to rebuild the profile that's still trying to recover from a contentious split with CART in 1996.

"I think Danica has been a great ambassador for our sport," Bernard said. "I think what she has done, more than any other driver, is bring a different demographic to our series, a reach to those who aren't the typical motorsports fan.

"People always ask me, 'Is it going to hurt you when she leaves?' I always say 'I believe it will help NASCAR more than it will hurt us.' She will drive ratings for them and drive a new fan base, as she did here."

The final leg of Patrick's open-wheel journey will be at super-fast Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Smooth and wide, LVMS had Indy-like speeds of up to nearly 225 mph, with the 220 mark in everyone's mirror during the first two days of practice. Patrick had the fastest speed in Thursday's run at 224.719 mph, a hot lap that was still fastest through Friday's practice, and qualified ninth for Sunday's Las Vegas Indy 300.

Heading into her final IndyCar race as a full-time driver, Patrick is fast and confident, giving her a chance to make headlines on a weekend when Dario Franchitti and Will Power are chasing the season title and Dan Wheldon is going after a $5 million prize.

"The track is nice and smooth and we'll be three-wide out there, which will be exciting," she said. "The race is going to be crazy — and the crashes will be spectacular. Nothing would let me turn the page better than winning here."

Whatever happens, it's sure to be memorable. Already has been.