Patrick steps back into IRL spotlight at RIR - - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - |

Patrick steps back into IRL spotlight at RIR

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ Danica Patrick doesn't mind all the attention she's received as the darling of the Indy Racing League, but she'd like the expectations being placed on her to be more realistic.

``As a driven person, I'm still driving for the top,'' Patrick said Friday at Richmond International Raceway, where she struggled in practice and qualified 21st for Saturday's 250-lap SunTrust Indy Challenge.

``But so far there have been great things that have happened. You know, things that I've done have been good, from a rookie especially,'' she said.

Patrick arrived at Richmond 10th in the point standings after six races and with the best finish ever by a woman in the Indy 500.

Her fourth-place run there after a month of dominating the pre-race attention earned her respect from most drivers, fellow driver Helio Castroneves said. She was also the first woman to lead a lap at Indy.

In her last race, she started third at Texas Motor Speedway, but struggled all day and finished 13th, her worst run in more than a month.

``Obviously I want to win,'' she said. ``But I think that we need to look in realistic terms as to how long things have taken for past rookies and past drivers that are really great. How long did it take for them to win a race? How are my teammates doing? I think that's still really important.''

IRL officials said Tony Stewart, probably the highest profile pre-Patrick rookie in the series, needed 10 races to win, and he then won the IRL title in 1996-97 and the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship in 2002.

Patrick, meantime, said she feels no added pressure to win.

Drivers have already noticed the jump in popularity spurred by Patrick.

``It's been gaining each race and you can see that by the crowds that turn up now. It's great to see,'' 2003 champion Scott Dixon said. ``It's more enthusiastic. Going to races now, you love to be there a little more than the past when it's been a little dismal with some of the turnouts.

``It's good to see people talking about it. Even when we were in Indianapolis, everybody knows what's going on. It's brought a lot of awareness and I think Danica has made a big headway in that,'' he said.

Patrick said the reason new fans come is less important than their attendance.

``It's not a burden. ... If I draw them in, it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to stay my fans,'' she said. ``They might go out there and see Tony Kanaan ripping around and go, `That's my guy.'''

Kanaan was the only driver not to beat Patrick's fastest lap in qualifying Friday, and that was because he spun out midway through his only lap, damaging his car when it backed into the wall in Turn Two.

Patrick was supposed to qualify eighth, but wound up going out first when the first seven drivers passed on their first chance, sacrificing one qualifying lap in the hope the track would have cooled off a bit.

They also were trying to avoid being first on the surface after USAC Sprint cars practiced, leaving chunks of rubber all over the asphalt.

After being last all day in practice, Patrick took her turn in order.

``I went faster than I've gone all day, so that's a good thing,'' she said after her best lap, which came at a speed of just 164.707 mph.

Pole-sitter Sam Hornish Jr. qualified with a lap at 176.244 mph.

Qualifying came after two practice sessions _ one an hourlong, the other a half-hour _ and those laps were her first on the three-quarter-mile oval, the shortest the IRL has raced on in its nine-plus year history.

But all was not lost on the day, Patrick said.

``It's good to just know the track, but I think overall we're struggling as a team to get the car right. I'm just hopeful that the changes that we make in between the qualifying and the final practice at the end of the day are good. Hopefully it works better in the race,'' she said.

Teammates Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira qualified 14th and 15th.
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