Indy Car Series driver Danica Patrick on May 27. (Mark J. Rebilas / U.S. Presswire )
Reporting from Indianapolis
It's media day for the drivers in the Indianapolis 500, and Danica Patrick takes her seat, flips her hair behind her shoulders and soon takes a question that gives her pause.
How will the Izod IndyCar Series get along without her if she bolts for NASCAR stock-car racing next year, as is widely expected?
"I don't believe I can answer that," Patrick said. "I don't know. Whether I go or whether I stay, I don't think I'm capable of answering whether or not the IndyCar series would be better or worse. I'm not sure."
Another uncertainty is whether Sunday's race, the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500, will be Patrick's last at the Brickyard. But this much is sure: No race means more to Patrick than this one.
Patrick's fame was launched at the Indy 500 in 2005 when, as a rookie, she led 19 laps and nearly became the first woman to win the famous race. She's typically run well at Indianapolis since then, and the 500 is still the race she most wants to win.
"Anyone who wins this race is a legend and remembered for it," she said. In her rookie year, driving for the team co-owned by former racer Bobby Rahal and late-night comedian David Letterman, whenever she would "go around with [Rahal] and he would get introduced, he'd always get introduced as the 1986 Indy 500 winner," she said.
"That just shows the magnitude of this race and how it resonates with people and how it's perceived," Patrick said.
Perception and market value, more than racing statistics, also are behind the decision of whether Patrick stays with IndyCar racing or moves to NASCAR.
This will be Patrick's 103rd start in the IndyCar series; she's won one race, in Japan in 2008. But Patrick nonetheless has nurtured her popularity and the value of her sponsorships with countless media interviews, television appearances and photos in Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions.
On Friday, for instance, she held a press conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to announce a new sponsorship deal with William Rast, an apparel and eyewear firm.
In the last 15 months, she's also been driving part-time in NASCAR's second-level Nationwide Series around her IndyCar schedule, trying to get familiar with stock-car racing.
With her IndyCar contract expiring after this season, Patrick has said she's weighing whether to choose one series or the other full-time in 2012.
Given that NASCAR is much more popular than IndyCar racing, speculation is high that Patrick has all but made up her mind to move to NASCAR next year, and one report said a deal was being finalized.
Not so, Patrick said Thursday. "There is definitely no tentative deal and there haven't been any decisions made, so that is pure speculation at this point," she said.
Even if she does leave, IndyCar will absorb the loss, said Helio Castroneves, the Team Penske driver who will try Sunday to become only the fourth driver to win the Indy 500 four times.
"What's she's done for the series has been incredible," Castroneves said of Patrick. "If she decided to move away, obviously that's her decision. But you've got to remember, other females are coming [into the sport]. It's not about one person."
Patrick survived a scare a week ago when her Andretti Autosport car wasn't fast enough to make the field in the first day of qualifying. But the next day she qualified 25th in the 33-car field, a career low.
Still, she started 23rd last year, climbed as high as fourth and finished sixth.
"Once we get through a couple of yellows [caution periods] the crew will do a good job of [gaining] spots on pit stops," Patrick said. "I also think that, given the fact this is 500 miles, we can let it play out for a while and see how it goes."
A full-time NASCAR ride might be next on Patrick's resume, but for now, she's focused on finishing the job she nearly completed as a rookie in 2005.
"Whether this is the 90th or 100th anniversary of this race, it's a big deal," she said. "You're always as nervous as you could possibly be leading up to this one."