Thirteen years ago, Danica Patrick was a 23-year old Indianapolis 500 rookie, the future of Indy cars, and one of the biggest stories in sports. Her fourth-place finish in Indianapolis ignited “Danica Mania,” put Indy racing in the spotlight, and set the stage for her eventual move to NASCAR and away from the open-wheel circuit.
But first came an explosion of publicity. She was on the cover of “Sports Illustrated.” Her merchandise outsold the series’s biggest names. The co-owner of her team told The Post that she was”having the ‘Tiger’ effect on TV ratings.” And she came shockingly close to achieving her biggest goal of leading the race inside the final 10 laps.
“There’s nothing I want to do more than to win this race,” Patrick said before that 2005 event.
Her final chance will come Sunday. Patrick has started seven times at the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing,’ only once topping her fourth-place finish as a rookie. (She was third in 2009, the best-ever finish for a female driver.) Her transition to stock-car racing took her away from the 500, but she’ll return this week for what she’s said will be her farewell.
Patrick’s plan entering this year was to end her NASCAR career at the Daytona 500, and then to finish her Indy career this week. Her Daytona trip ended with a crash. She’ll start seventh on Sunday, with a chance to leave a different sort of memory at the track that helped rocket her to fame.
“I can’t think of a better way to end my racing career than at Indianapolis for the 500,” Patrick, 36, told the L.A. Times. “I can’t think of a more cool way to be done. I mean, to finish up at a place that has so many good memories for me, and at the biggest race of the year for Indy cars and arguably the biggest race of the year, period.”
She’ll still have promotional interests, from a winery to a cookbook to a clothing line, according to NBC Sports. She’ll still be on television; boyfriend Aaron Rodgers is expected at Sunday’s race, and Patrick figures to appear at some Packers games in the fall. And she enters Sunday with an admirable perspective.
“I think all of my life I’ve kind of felt like you’re only as good as your last race. And it’s fine to live by that when you’re in the middle of it, because it drives you and pushes you. But for that to really be the reality of your entire career is really silly,” Patrick told CBS News. “People are going to remember … 20-some years of racing, the 13 years professionally at IndyCar and NASCAR level … not necessarily how I did at the Indy 500 in my very last year. Unless I win.”
Here is everything else you need to know ahead of the 102nd Indianapolis 500.
When: Driver introductions are scheduled for about 11:30 a.m. on Sunday. Kelly Clarkson is scheduled to perform the national anthem just before noon. Drivers will be told to start their engines around 12:12 p.m., and the green flag is scheduled for 12:19.
How to watch: ABC’s pre-race show begins at 11 a.m. Race coverage begins at noon, also on ABC. The broadcast is also available on the ESPN App and the WatchABC App.
Length: The race is 500 miles, which means 200 laps around Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval.
Weather: It was hot in Indianapolis on Saturday, and forecasters are calling for more of the same on Sunday. The National Weather Service is forecasting another mostly sunny, scorching day, with light winds and a high temperature near 92.
The favorites: Oddsmakers list Alexander Rossi, the 2016 winner, as the betting favorite. Rossi, now 26, became the first rookie to win the race in 15 years two years ago, and followed that up with a seventh-place finish in 2017. He also sits second in the IndyCar Series standings. But the Andretti Autosport driver had a tough time in qualifying and will start way back in the 32nd spot, putting him in the 11th row.
Helio Castroneves, the only active driver with three wins at this race, is starting 8th, in the third row. The popular Brazilian was the runner-up a year ago, the third time he’s finished in that spot at Indy. He isn’t running a full IndyCar schedule this season, but he’s always a contender in Indianapolis.
Australian Will Power will start in the front row, as usual. The Team Penske stalwart has started at the front three of the past five years. But the 2014 series champion has never won this race, and has just one top-three finish.
Then there’s pole sitter Ed Carpenter, who prevented Penske from monopolizing the front row. (In addition to Power, who will start third, Penske has Simon Pagenaud starting second and Josef Newgarden, the standings leader, starting fourth.) Carpenter, the only driver to top 230 mph in qualifying, is the pole sitter for the third time, but he’s never finished better than 10th. (Carpenter’s stepfather, Tony George, founded the Indy Racing League.)
Who’s missing: James Hinchcliffe is fifth in the series standings and among the best-known drivers, but the Canadian failed to qualify. Pippa Mann, who’s been in the race five straight years, also failed to qualify.
Who else will be there: Defending champion Takuma Sato, the first Japanese driver to win, will start 16th. Tony Kanaan, the 2013 winner, was the fastest in the final practice session. Marco Andretti, who’s finished third at Indy three times, will start 12th. Past winner Scott Dixon was last year’s pole sitter but a frightening crash left him 32nd. He’ll start ninth this year.