INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Danica Patrick lived up to the hype. Now, what does she do for an encore?

Patrick stole the show at the Indianapolis 500, giving the guys a real run for their money and nearly grabbing the biggest purse in auto racing before finishing fourth.

The 5-foot-2, 100-pound rookie thrilled the 300,000 or so spectators at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway who spent much of the final 30 laps on their feet screaming and cheering as he she tried to pull off the biggest upset in 89 years of Indy history.

Englishman Dan Wheldon got to celebrate in Victory Lane and will pocket at least $1.5 million, but Patrick gave Americans a new hero to follow in a sport dominated in recent years by foreign drivers.

In fact, only 14 of the 33 starters in Sunday’s race were Americans.

After being the biggest surprise of the month – turning some of the fastest speeds in practice and qualifying fourth – the 23-year-old Patrick was almost good enough to take the checkered flag. She led three times for 19 laps and overcame a stalled engine in the pits and a crash on the track before a nearly empty fuel tank finally cost her this first shot at racing immortality.

“I think that if I could have run full fuel … we’ll never know,” she said, wistfully. “You know, I’d like to think that we could have maybe won it.”

So much for the critics who said the tiny woman, who had never raced for more than 300 miles, would fade at the end of the long Indy event.

She did make those rookie mistakes, but Patrick wasn’t so much upset by that as by the fact they put her back in the pack.

“I came from the back twice,” she said. “That (stinks) back there. It’s hard. I was so (much) more content running up front. It was much easier.”

She got the lead late in the race by gambling on a long fuel run and staying on track when the other leaders pitted. And it looked like it was all over for Patrick when Wheldon passed her for the lead on lap 186.

But, with the crowd in a frenzy, she zoomed back on top on a restart on lap 190 and began to pull away – until she was ordered to slow to conserve fuel. Her laps speeds dropped from 226 to 221.

Wheldon regained the lead on lap 194 and Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta also got past her before the finish. But Patrick, who barely had enough fuel to finish, was not discouraged.

“I think what might have showed the most is that I was able to pass and I was able to learn how to set someone up better,” she said. “Yeah, I definitely got a lot of experience in different situations. So it was frustrating to be leading the race with so few laps to go and not be able to finish hard and just hang out up front and win the thing.”

Patrick, the fourth woman to race in the Indy 500, helped ABC generate the best TV ratings for Indy in nearly a decade.

The overnight rating from the nation’s top 55 markets was 6.6 with a 17 share – meaning 17 percent of the people watching TV tuned in to the 500 at some point during the three-hour race.

That was up 40 percent from last year’s 4.7 rating and 11 share, and was the highest Sunday rating for the Indy 500 since a 7.4 and 21 share in 1996 – the year the Indy Racing League began competing with the established CART series, starting a downward spiral in open-wheel interest. The 1997 race, which finished on a Tuesday because of rain, drew a 7.6 rating and 19 share.

During the last 15 minutes of Sunday’s race, with Patrick in or near the lead, the rating jumped to 8.8 with a 21 share.

Patrick’s list of Indy feats is impressive:

– Best starting position by a woman.

– First woman to lead a lap.

– Best finish by a woman.

It would have been hard for her to picture all of this happening a year ago.

Patrick, then racing in the developmental Toyota Atlantic Series, accompanied team co-owner Bobby Rahal to Indianapolis to spark a little publicity for her sponsors. She appeared momentarily startled when Rahal unexpectedly announced during a Speedway news conference that the team co-owned by television talk show host David Letterman would put her in a car for this year’s Indy 500.

Typical of Patrick, she recovered quickly, her black eyes blazing with excitement.

“Cool!” she said, adding, “I’ll be ready.”

Rahal went one better on his promise, putting Patrick in a full-time IndyCar ride this season.

Her apprenticeship has been brief and her learning curve sharp. Rahal, a three-time series champion and the 1986 Indy winner, told the determined rookie repeatedly to just finish races and not worry about results.

“Seat time is what she needs,” he said.

But in four races leading up to Indy, Patrick improved in each, including an eye-opening fourth-place run last month in Motegi, Japan, where she led 32 laps.

Now, it appears Motegi was no fluke. The next test will come June 11 at Texas Motor Speedway, another of the fastest tracks on the IRL schedule.

That means it’s time to put both the disappointments and the accomplishments of Indy behind her.

“Man, I can hardly wait,” Patrick said. “I love being in the race car. That’s why I’m in this sport. And I guess I’ll have to win a race before people really believe in me.”


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