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Danica Patrick takes balancing act to Long Beach grand prix

The IndyCar driver, who also has been competing in NASCAR races, faces an important decision about her future. Meanwhile, qualifying for the coastal race will take place Saturday.

April 14, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick before the Honda Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park.
IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick before the Honda Indy Grand Prix at… (Marvin Gentry / US Presswire )

As the Izod IndyCar Series arrives in Long Beach this weekend, Danica Patrick might be driving her last IndyCar race on the city's coastal streets.

Patrick, the series' most popular driver, in the last 14 months has been trying her hand at NASCAR stock-car racing in and around her IndyCar schedule and will continue doing so later this year.

And with her contract with the IndyCar team of Andretti Autosport up for renewal after this season, speculation keeps mounting that she'll jump to NASCAR full time in 2012.

Patrick, 29, said she'll make the decision later this year, although she hasn't yet ruled out again splitting her time between IndyCar and NASCAR for one more season next year.

"It's wise to choose one or the other [series] at some point," Patrick said. "But it doesn't mean the possibility isn't there" to spend another year in both, she added.

In the meantime, Patrick and her rival IndyCar drivers are preparing for Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, run on a 1.97-mile, 11-turn course that includes a long stretch of Shoreline Drive. The drivers have two practice sessions Friday and qualifying to set the starting grid is Saturday.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, one of Patrick's teammates, won the race last year. Other favorites this weekend include reigning IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and Will Power and Helio Castroneves of Team Penske.

Franchitti won this season's opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Power won last weekend's race at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. Both also are former Long Beach winners.

Although Patrick is now in her sixth year as an IndyCar driver, she's raced in the Long Beach Grand Prix only in the last two years. That's due to a long dispute that split rival factions in open-wheel racing and kept her and other IndyCar drivers away from the race until the two sides reunited in 2008.

Patrick finished fourth in Long Beach in 2009 but last year she finished 16th after starting 20th, and by her own admission she's less effective on curvy street and road courses than on oval tracks, such as the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Her lone IndyCar victory, which made her the first woman to win a series event, came on an oval track in Motegi, Japan, in 2008.

"So much of the weekend [in Long Beach] comes down to qualifying" because passing is difficult on the street course, Patrick said. "I have to figure out how to pull those last couple of tenths of a second" to be faster in qualifying and start closer to the lead, she said.

Patrick, of course, has earned much of her celebrity off the track with numerous television appearances and magazine spreads over the years, including Sports Illustrated's swimsuit editions.

Her visit to Southern California this week included an appearance on "The Doctors" TV show so that Patrick could promote her campaign against chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Patrick lost a grandmother to the disease.

Patrick now has competed in 17 races in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series, including four earlier this year. Her highest finish was fourth in Las Vegas last month.

"I really feel good about it and I'm getting more comfortable" in NASCAR, said Patrick, who drives for JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. She returns to the Nationwide Series on June 4 at Chicagoland Speedway.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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