Danica Patrick unable to keep up pace at Indy


INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – On the eve of pole qualifying a year ago at Indy, surprising rookie Danica Patrick was the fastest driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Through the first week of practice, the sensational youngster, then 23, was a pacesetter. Only a bobble in one turn of one of her four laps of qualifying on the historic 2.5-mile oval kept Patrick from winning the pole for the 89th Indy 500. But even qualifying fourth – the best by a woman at Indy – was enough to create a sensation.

Then, with “Danicamania” in full bloom, the diminutive Patrick became the first woman to lead the big race, winning top rookie honors with her fourth-place finish, the best by a woman.

She’s still a sensation with the fans, drawing crowds wherever she goes. But Patrick hasn’t been able to keep up the pace on the track. So far, she is 13th fastest for the week, with a fast lap of 223.084 mph.

“I look back and think, “That was nice and easy (last year).’ But that’s not always the case,” Patrick said Friday, 24 hours before the scheduled start of qualifying for the May 28 race. This week, with rain shortening or canceling every session since practice began on Tuesday, Patrick and the rest of her Rahal Letterman Racing team have struggled to keep up with the other top teams.

“We’re struggling for sure,” Patrick said. “We’re doing the best we can. We just can’t seem to get the car to grip up.”

The big difference for the Rahal team is the fact that all the entries at Indy are powered by Honda engines this year. Last year, with some of the other top teams using Toyota and Chevrolet engines, the Honda teams, including Rahal, had a definite horsepower advantage.

“That’s another thing that’s not working to our advantage now that we are among all Hondas,” Patrick said. “Some of the other teams learned how to go fast last year without all the horsepower, and now everybody has it and they’re out front.”

With their problems, track time is key for Patrick and teammates Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy winner, and newcomer Jeff Simmons, but they and the rest of the Indy entries have been mostly stymied by the wet conditions.

Rice, who missed last year’s race after being injured in a crash during the first week of practice, bruised his knees in another crash Thursday. He was cleared to drive Friday by track doctors, but his backup car remained in the garage as the rain fell.

“The weather has been tough on our team,” Rice said. “But there’s still the possibility of making everything come together. It’s just going to take a little bit of work right now.”

But the question remains: When are they going to do that work?

The final full day of practice before the opening of qualifying, known as “Fast Friday,” turned out to be “Frustrating Friday” as the entire day’s action was washed away by a steady cold rain.

And the forecast for the weekend isn’t optimistic, either, with a 70 percent chance of rain and temperatures hovering around 50 both Saturday and Sunday.

The current format at Indy calls for four days of time trials – this weekend and next weekend – with 11 of the 33 starters qualifying each of the first three days and the final day reserved for faster drivers to bump out the slowest qualifiers.

Last year was the first year for the 11 qualifiers per day and Saturday was rained out, eliminating much of the drama as 22 drivers were able to qualify on Sunday.

When qualifying does take place, the list of favorites for the pole certainly will begin with two-time IRL IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr., the fastest driver here since practice began. Hornish shrugged off gusty winds Thursday to post a speed of 226.789 mph – the fastest of the week. That came during a four-lap simulated qualifying run.

Among the other fast drivers this week have been Hornish’s Marlboro Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, a two-time Indy winner; Target Chip Ganassi drivers Dan Wheldon, the defending Indy champ, and Scott Dixon, and Andretti Green Racing entries Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta, rookie Marco Andretti and his father and team co-owner, Michael Andretti, making a comeback after being out of the cockpit since 2003.

AP-ES-05-12-06 1708EDT