Indy contenders welcome Danica's 500 return

Indy contenders welcome Danica's 500 return

IndyCar

Indy contenders welcome Danica's 500 return

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Danica Patrick can expect a warm welcome from some of IndyCar’s brightest stars upon her return to the Indy 500.

Defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, 2016 Indy 500 polesitter James Hinchcliffe, and championship front-runner Graham Rahal are among those who hold genuine enthusiasm for her addition to the field of 33.

“I think it’s great news,” Newgarden told RACER. “It’s exciting to see who’s going to enter this race every year, and to have Danica come back, it’s going to be fun to see her have her last race there in a place where she really started her professional career and has had a lot of success.”

For the Team Penske driver, whose Chevy-powered entry will wear the No. 1 next year, having Patrick as a rival will be a new experience. With her departure for NASCAR coming at the end of the 2011 IndyCar season, Newgarden – the 2011 Indy Lights champion who graduated to the big series in 2012 – missed the Danica Patrick experience. The same will be true for many of the IndyCar regulars who joined the series after her exit.

“To have an opportunity to compete with her – my first time – I’m really happy about it,” he added.

Hinchcliffe stepped into the seat Patrick vacated at Andretti Autosport in 2012. As a series veteran who leads the resurgent Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team, the Canadian believes she will have few issues adapting to a Dallara chassis and new 2018 bodywork that are significantly different than the package she used in her first IndyCar stint.

“There’s a lot of things to consider,” he said. “She’s been out of open-wheel for a while, but her timing couldn’t be better because nobody has drivien the 2018 car on a speedway in race spec, so she’s going to have plenty of time to get up to speed.

“The kind of racing that we’ve seen from the DW12 is different from the [Dallara] IR03 (above: Hinchcliffe alongside Danica at Mid-Ohio in 2011). My initial thoughts are that it’s going to be different again, so missing out the last couple of years, I don’t think it’s going to be a detriment to her. No reason to that think without a week of practice she can’t be right up there with everybody else.”

Rahal sees Patrick’s approach to driving open-wheel cars as being a perfect complement to what she’ll face at the Brickyard. He also thinks the sharp increase in driving talent throughout the field since her last Indy 500 is where the real fight will be found.

“She’s always had a smooth driving style, and Indianapolis is a place that suits her very well,” he said. “She’s always been smooth and fast, [but] I do think today’s world is a lot more competitive world than when she was there. To run at the top is a hard thing to do. It has gotten significantly harder than the early days when I was doing it.

“If you can finish in the top 15, you’re doing a good job, so I think she’s going to find that a little bit more of a challenge. I’m excited for her. I’m eager to see how she does. Selfishly, I’m happy for her, and happy that Indy will be her last [race]. Indy, at the core of it, is who she is. I’m excited to see her back home.”

Although Patrick will bring plenty of attention to her Indy 500 farewell, Newgarden isn’t willing to write her off as a marketing ploy or gimmick act to be disregarded.

“She’s done a lot for the sport commercially, but she’s also one of the best at Indy,” he added. “That’s her background, really. She came up through the karting ranks and open-wheel racing was her start, and she will 100 percent have an opportunity to kick everyone’s butt if she has a good car underneath her. And I think that’s how everyone’s going to treat the challenge that she’s bringing.”

Asked if he would be open to IndyCar granting Patrick a special test day – akin to what it did for Fernando Alonso – ahead of Indy that drew millions of viewers via live streaming, Hinchcliffe loves most of the idea.

“If the refresher course is open to everyone else who would qualify, then I don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “We get so much practice during the week, it’s hard to argue that it’s any kind of advantage. Running around by yourself doesn’t do anybody any good for the race.

“I’m for it; I don’t believe anybody deserves special treatment: Fernando Alonso, Danica Patrick, or anybody else. I’d say pick a day, let everybody that needs one get one and live stream the s**t out of it and let’s make it a big deal. Let’s build some excitement for this race.”

Chip Ganassi Racing is the leading candidate to field Patrick in a Honda-powered entry alongside 2008 Indy winner Scott Dixon and newcomer Ed Jones, who finished third at Indy in 2017 on his first try. Rahal would have enjoyed having Patrick back at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing where she made her Indy 500 debut to great fanfare in 2005.

“In all honesty, I’d hoped it was going to be with us,” he said. “I thought that would be a very fitting end to her career, to come back with my old man, the guy who started her career and got her going, [with] the team that started it and got it going, I thought that would have been a pretty cool story. It’s good timing for IndyCar. In her interview when she said she never thought it would happen, it says a lot about where IndyCar racing and the Indy 500 stands in her heart.”

Provided Patrick signs on as the third CGR driver at Indy, Rahal believes she’ll have top-tier equipment. During his time at CGR from 2011-’12 as a teammate to Dixon and Dario Franchitti in the Target-sponsored cars, it wasn’t a confidence Rahal always held with his own equipment.

“Loaded question. I’ve been there, I’ve done it. In my time, I’m not sure the C and D players got what the A and B got,” he continued. “Today, they do. Forget Scott Dixon. He’s just better than everybody else. That, I think, is a fact. It looks like everybody gets a pretty competitive piece. Today, all those cars are equal.”


 

Questions about Patrick’s skills, intentions, and ability to pick up where she left off at the Indy 500 have flooded social media since her announcement on Friday. For the two who’ve have raced against her, the wanton negativity and criticism is just noise.

“If she runs well, people are going to be good about it. Whether it’s a goofy Canadian or a veteran Japanese driver, people respect what you do at the Speedway,” Hinchcliffe said. “She’s always been a fierce competitor; that’s never been a question. If she goes out there and performs well and still has that fire, then I think Indianapolis will welcome her back with open arms.”

Through his marriage to NHRA ass-kicker Courtney Force, Rahal has been privy to the constant – and often disturbing – hatred thrown at high-profile women in the sport. It has altered his perspective on the topic in a fundamental way.

“Through the positives and negatives associated with DP over the years, I think we all need to step back and appreciate her for what she’s done,” he said. “I see it firsthand with my wife, too. Competing head to head with men is not an easy thing. [Men] are going to be harder on [women] than they are on others. That’s what it is. There is no doubt, contrary to what some may want to believe – or do believe – that Danica Patrick has brought more eyes to racing, across the board.

“Racing, as a whole, found a new fan base when Danica hit the level that she did. Millions of social media followers, millions of media stories; the impact that she has had…it’s hard to put a value on that.”

And for those who think Patrick isn’t respected by Indy’s best, Rahal has a message.

“I think it’s wrong. I respect her tremendously,” he declared. “I respect her way more now that I’ve been married to Courtney and see the unbelievable stuff people will say. I respect her for standing up and living in that world. Even if your name is Dale Jr. it’s not an easy place to be, for all the pressure and heat she goes through. If people believe that or say that, it’s news to me.”

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