Danica Patrick’s first IndyCar team owner is confident the NASCAR star can return to form at the 2018 Indy 500. Provided it’s with the right team.
Patrick, whose full-time career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series reaches its end on Sunday, started and finished fourth on her Indy debut with the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team in 2005, and ranked among the most competitive drivers in seven visits with RLLR and Andretti Autosport.
Both teams have ruled themselves out of the 2018 sweepstakes to run Patrick at Indy, but Bobby Rahal (pictured above with Patrick in ’05) believes recapturing the front-running form that made her a household name can be achieved with one of the other leading IndyCar entrants.
“Danica isn’t driving for us, but if she’s with a good team, and the team is going to matter a whole lot in this situation, I think she can be right there, right where she was when she left Indy,” Rahal told RACER.
“She did a great job for us. And so much of it is about who you’re surrounded with today. Would [Fernando] Alonso have done such a good job without the team and teammates he had? Danica had [2004 Indy 500 winner] Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira to work with when she was with us, and they all made each other better. She was always strong on the ovals and I don’t see why she can’t be strong again. There’s no question about that.”
With the Verizon IndyCar Series moving to its new and attractive UAK18 bodywork (above) next season, Patrick has chosen the perfect time to make her return. Each team will face a steep learning curve with the unique Indy 500 aerodynamic configuration that will be introduced which, in theory, should erase some of the experiential gap while Patrick’s been away in NASCAR.
Although the Illinois native could find herself on relatively equal footing with UAK18 knowledge on the driving front, Rahal sees her choice of team as playing a more critical role in whether Patrick can vie for the win.
“For sure, the depth of driving talent is greater than it’s ever been at Indy, but that also includes the teams,” he added. “Now we’re going to be dealing with a new animal with the new universal aero kit, so maybe Danica won’t be at a driving disadvantage; everyone needs to figure the kits out, but I do think the number of competitive cars will drop. That’s why I think the team she picks will be so important.
“We had the last aero kits for a while, we had time to learn what made them tick, and everybody was really close in the end. It’s like we’re going back to zero with the new kits, and I think it’s natural to expect some teams to struggle more than others while they look for what works best with the car. A team that was really good this year might not be so strong next year, basically. But like I said, she can drive a car, especially on the ovals. With the right team, she can be right there.”