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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Danica Patrick

2010 will go down as a year that Danica Patrick would like to forget.

The media darling of the IZOD IndyCar Series emulated a career path chosen by Tony Stewart in 1998, fitting in a handful of stock car races around and in between her primary IndyCar commitments, and both sets of results suffered in 2010. Patrick barely slid into 10th place in points after the season finale at Homestead, marking the first time in her IndyCar career that she failed to improve on the previous season's results.

In 2009, Patrick finished an impressive fifth in the championship, tops among the non-Penske and Ganassi drivers. But the addition of a third Penske car had a lot of pundits confident on who would take the top five spots. Meanwhile, some miserable stock car spots and a restructuring of the new Andretti Autosport team had others wondering if Patrick could keep up her streak of improvements.

It was not to be the case.

Never a shining star on the road courses, Patrick's finishes to begin the season this year were nothing short of abysmal. Twice, in the new events in Sao Paulo and Alabama, she failed to finish on the lead lap. While teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay took victory at Long Beach, she finished a subpar 16th, fighting rookie Simona de Silvestro, who was equipped with a far older and slower car, for the position. Patrick ended the early road course segment of the season 16th in points, her title hopes for the year already all but gone. An 11th place run at Kansas, two laps down, put her more than 100 back of leader Will Power, and that was that.

Greater troubles came in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Patrick had never failed to start worse than 10th in the race until this year, when she could only muster a 23rd place run. On television interviews, Patrick threw her Andretti Autosport crew under the bus, blaming them for an unstable and slow car, to a chorus of boos from the speedway faithful. After apologizing to her crew, who received nothing but praise in most subsequent races, she managed to finish sixth in the event.

The next race at Texas proved to be Patrick's strongest run of the year. She managed to lead a lap, her only lap led all season, but in the end fell just over a second short of rival Ryan Briscoe's pace. The run had some suggesting that Patrick's season, while not championship-worthy, could at least elevate her past 11th place in points.

But Patrick didn't visit the top five again for the next eight races, with a sixth at Toronto the lone highlight. In that span, Patrick placed 15th or worse four times, continuing her run of road course futility. In fact, in that championship subcategory, she finished a disappointing 15th, as road course champion Power scored nearly three times as many points on road courses as she did.

Returning to Motegi, the site of her lone career IndyCar win in 2008, Patrick had nothing for a dominant Helio Castroneves, but still mustered a fifth place finish. At Homestead, she traded chop blocks with teammate Tony Kanaan to score another second place finish, before learning that Kanaan's sponsor, 7-Eleven, would shift its marketing dollars to her next season. These two runs allowed her to slip by Justin Wilson for the final spot in the top 10 of the championship standings.

To say Patrick's 2010 was difficult would be to understate. Hard luck results and a slip in the standings weren't the only issues. Infighting at Andretti, particularly with Kanaan, dogged her for much of the season, and the celebrity that once came with being IndyCar's first female winner died out as she began to shift attention to stock cars. When ESPN referred to her as "NASCAR's Danica Patrick" at the ESPYs, all ties to her former stardom may have been lost.

Patrick is safe at Andretti for next season, guaranteed a ride by a large GoDaddy contract. She may stand to benefit from potential contraction; if the team cannot find sponsorship to keep Kanaan and Hunter-Reay aboard, she will likely stand to inherit some of their teams' top crew members. But driving in two distinctly different disciplines is a difficult task for anyone to imagine, and if Patrick struggles in stock cars next year as she did this year, it may once again affect her IndyCar performance.

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