"Here comes Danica," one fan shouted, and instantly a swarm of people surrounded Danica Patrick, literally bringing her scooter to a halt as she tried to weave through the crowded IZOD IndyCar Series garage area during this weekend’s season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
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As soon as she stopped, fans encircled her 10 deep, standing on their tiptoes, straining their necks for a glimpse, pushing pens toward her for an autograph, shoving forward to position themselves for a photograph alongside racing’s most famous two-series star.
And Patrick couldn’t have looked more at home.
She hasn’t won a race in three years and has never won a major championship. But she sure commands a crowd.
After spending the last two months competing in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series, the seven-year veteran Patrick returned "home" to start the IndyCar season this weekend ready for a dose of confidence and contention.
Historically road and street courses have challenged her, but she finished 12th Sunday on the downtown streets of St. Pete — penalized one finishing position for rough driving — "avoidable contact" — on the last lap.
While she has been extremely careful to temper expectations in her infant NASCAR career, it’s a different story in open-wheel, where she isn’t just "one of the boys," she’s often better than the boys.
"That is what I expect: to run up front every weekend,” Patrick said. "With that kind of goal, maybe perhaps you’re a little more disappointed more often. If the goal is to win every weekend, there’s not that many people that win every weekend; it’s just that hard. But that is the expectation.”
Interestingly, every time Patrick was asked this weekend about her comfort level in IndyCar, she brought up how comfortable she is in NASCAR, where two weeks ago she notched her first top-five in 17 starts, a fourth place at Las Vegas.
"I think I’ve gotten to the point in stock cars, at least where I’ve been once already, where I feel comfortable,” Patrick said. "In general, so far this year I’ve felt more comfortable overall and things seem calm. It’s overall a good thing and I think it’s helping.”
Although Patrick won’t be doing a television show like the NBA’s LeBron James, "The Decision II" will be coming later this year when she announces which form of racing — stock cars or Indy cars — she’ll focus on when her IndyCar contract with Andretti Autosport expires at the end of the season.
She insists that she hasn’t made a decision yet and is waiting to see how she fares and how she feels this season with a 13-race partial Nationwide Series schedule scattered into a full IndyCar Series commitment. Her fans — some wearing t-shirts with her No. 7 GoDaddy.com Indycar on it and others sporting her bright-green NASCAR Chevrolet — seem to be split on what she should do.
"I’m more of a NASCAR fan, so I’d love to see her do NASCAR full time and show those guys up because she’s going to,” said Roger Marcotte of New Jersey, who says he has been a Danica fan since her fourth-place Indianapolis 500 debut in 2005.
Her fellow IndyCar drivers also seem to be pulling for her. Most watch NASCAR on a regular basis and are intrigued with Patrick’s experiences and curious as to her fate.
"The biggest thing, is if she goes well in NASCAR and doesn’t in Indycar, there’s a lot of people that are going to start saying, she’s not going well in IndyCar because of NASCAR,” said former Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon. "I don’t think it’s fair that people will judge because she’s so new. In my opinion she seems to be doing well. Particularly when you’re learning, it would be incredibly difficult going back and forth. You’ve got to be very versatile to do that.”
"I think it would be good to see her do well. It’s very easy for people to criticize from the outside.
"I’ll be interested to see what her decision is. To be fair, she’s a racer through and through. If I had that opportunity to be in a race car all the time, I’d do it too.”
Wheldon also offered his unique perspective on Patrick’s fiery competitive spirit — something NASCAR fans saw firsthand last week when she angrily gestured to Ryan Truex after he crashed her out at Bristol Motor Speedway. Wheldon has seen that temper firsthand. She once famously confronted him on pit road, pointing her finger toward his face and grabbing his arm after they clashed on the track.
"I like that about her, though,” Wheldon said smiling. "I like it that she cares. They talk about it more because it’s Danica, but I like the fact she gets mad when she doesn’t do well.”
Roger Penske, who owns teams in both NASCAR and the IndyCar series, said he has been impressed with Patrick but would advise her to pick a path.
"I’ve watched her run these last couple races . . . and you know, you’ve got to give her credit,” Penske said. "There’s so much pressure on her, every TV camera is on her every time she moves. I think the (NASCAR) team has a lot more confidence in her than they had before. And I think she can win here (in Indycar). She has.
"It’s just a decision that she has to make. Do you want to run 38 races like they do in NASCAR? But if she wants to win in NASCAR, she’s gonna have to make a decision. She’s got both circumstances, one in each hand. She understands what’s going on in NASCAR side now and she certainly knows what’s going on here."