Danica must seize opportunity at Indy

The intensity in Danica Patrick’s brown eyes was evident as she waited in her car on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s pit road Sunday afternoon, desperate for a chance to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 after rain halted action with a little more than two hours remaining in time trials.

The urgency was unmistakable.

Unsure whether the track would dry in time for Patrick to make a qualifying attempt, television and radio broadcasters — even her competitors — wondered aloud what kind of an Indianapolis 500 it would be without Indy racing’s most famous driver in the field.

Perhaps we’ll be finding out soon enough. Although the rain passed, the track dried and Patrick ultimately and dramatically was able to earn a berth in the 33-car field for this Sunday’s historic 100th running of the Indy 500, there is a very real and looming possibility that this will be Patrick’s last best shot to win Indy.

Patrick, who runs a partial NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule bookending her IndyCar commitment, insists she has not decided whether she will return to the IZOD IndyCar Series next year, move full time to NASCAR or, for the third consecutive year, compete in both disciplines.

“I suppose anything is possible, but for me, I haven’t made any of those decisions yet,’’ Patrick said when asked last week if she considered this to be her final Indianapolis 500.

“This is a special event in and of itself. Indy is my favorite race in the world. … I don’t know where the future is going to take me, but I do know these things.’’

Everybody else seems to have an opinion, however.

Crew members and reporters roaming the NASCAR garage last week in Charlotte, N.C, seemed pretty convinced that this will be Patrick’s last Indy hoorah, at least her final competitive one.

The general consensus in NASCAR circles is that it is an all-but-done deal that Patrick will run a full Nationwide Series schedule in 2012 for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports before moving up to stock car’s big leagues, the Sprint Cup Series, the following year.

Even if she decides to run the Nationwide Series full time and do a one-off race at Indianapolis — which would be logistically possible since the Nationwide race is on Saturday, an off day at the Speedway — the IndyCar Series will have new cars in 2012, making it much more daunting to get acclimated and up to speed with such limited time behind the wheel.

Two-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart, the 1997 IndyCar champ who competed in five Indy 500s, said a major reason he doesn’t expect to run the Indy 500 ever again is because he feels there is no credible chance to win when you are racing those cars just once a year.

Conspicuously quiet during all the “will-she?” “won’t-she?” speculation is Patrick’s IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti. When she was reworking her contract with Andretti Autosport two years ago, Andretti indicated he had always expected her to stay in open-wheel racing. We don’t hear that now as her latest contract expires.

Other than bemoaning the recent road-course additions to the IndyCar Series schedule and noting her progress in stock cars, Patrick has been coy if not evasive on her future. Of course, it is possible that she really hasn’t made a decision yet.

A lot of expectations — hers and others — will come into play.

How much would Patrick expect to earn in NASCAR despite the fact she has only 17 races under her belt? With unsurpassed marketability and huge popularity, Patrick and her mega-management firm IMG would reasonably expect the kind of big, big payday only certain Nationwide teams and ultimately only a few Cup teams could offer. Sponsorship would not be a problem.

Then there is the idea of being competitive. Although her NASCAR team owner Earnhardt has proven to be the exception, marketability and popularity only go so far. Patrick will have to perform on track. NASCAR fans and its press corps are less forgiving and she can expect far greater scrutiny than she’s had in IndyCar.

One thing would certainly help sway her loyalties: winning the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. Patrick has proven herself a perennial favorite there with a historic third-place run in 2009 and has finished worse than eighth only one time in six starts.

Before qualifications weekend, Patrick insisted she wasn’t particularly sentimental about this start.

“I really am approaching this like any other year,’’ she said. “I feel like I get more nervous every year. I’m more nervous coming into it this year. Maybe it’s because you’re getting older and on some level, you think you have less of them (left) to do. I don’t know.’’

After a dramatic final-hour qualifying run during Sunday’s final session, however, Patrick spoke at great lengths about being more appreciative of the defining good moments — like leading the race in 2005 and finishing third in 2009 — a first and a best for a woman driver.

“The lows are really low here, which means that the highs are really high here,’’ Patrick said. “And until you’ve experienced them, you’ve never really experienced Indy for all it can be for you. I’ve been there.

“I feel lucky for that.’’