FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – The media glare focused on Danica Patrick at Texas Motor Speedway might be daunting to drivers with far more time in the spotlight.

But the 23-year-old Indy Racing League rookie isn’t the least bit bothered. In fact, she’s having a pretty good time as she balances the frenzy of fan attention and a multitude of interview requests with preparations for Saturday night’s Bombardier Learjet 500, a race likely to see lots of three-wide racing at more than 200 mph.

The first question Patrick fielded Friday during a packed press conference was about the cool, calm demeanor she has worn since the beginning of the month of May at Indianapolis, where she led laps and finished fourth – both firsts for a woman in the 500.

Asked if she somehow knew this “Danica Mania” was going to happen someday and had prepared herself for it, Patrick smiled shyly and replied: “Would it sound cocky if I said yes?

“I never knew what was going to happen. All I knew is that, best case scenario, it would, that it would be big news and that it would have an impact and it would help the series and it would inspire young kids and girls and be a really great story.

“Maybe that’s why I feel completely myself. It’s a big deal, but I don’t feel it’s something that I’m going to overanalyze and say, “Wow! I’m in the newspapers every day.’ I feel it’s just kind of a story right now, something that people are excited, interested and curious about, to see how it unfolds.”

Tony Kanaan, the reigning champion of the IRL and winner of four races in the IndyCar Series, stood briefly at the back of the crowded room, watching and listening. As he turned to leave, Patrick saw him and said, “Next question, Tony Kanaan.”

He smiled as he left the room, turning and saying, “You’re doing OK.”

Kanaan and some of the other IRL drivers are impressed by the way Patrick, who was racing in the developmental Toyota Atlantic series a year ago, has dealt with her new ride in Rahal Letterman Racing’s 650-horsepower IndyCar, as well as her newfound celebrity.

She has improved in each of the five races so far.

, coming back strong from a crash in the opener at Homestead, Fla., that left her with a concussion. The last two races have been Patrick’s best as she has led and finished fourth in both.

“She’s done a lot for women,” Kanaan said. “She’s the fastest woman ever. But, in my opinion, she’s getting too much attention. But that’s the way it is. We go with what makes news, right?”

But Kanaan said he isn’t criticizing Patrick for taking advantage of the opportunities she is getting. It’s just that he believes she has a lot yet to prove.

“It’s going to get to a point where, if she wants to be the best of all, she’s going to have to prove that she can win races and she needs to win championships,” the Brazilian said. “Otherwise, it’s going to just die out.”

Patrick is determined that is not going to happen. But the 1-mile Texas oval is one of a number of new tracks that she is going to face in the next few months as she continues to learn her craft.

“It’s going to be tough, really tough,” she said. “I’ve only had one other race where we’ve run side-by-side.

“This might be a time when I start to show (I’m a) rookie again, just being at tracks where I haven’t been before and trying to learn them. … But I do have a good team and good teammates to help me accelerate that program,” she said, referring to Buddy Rice, returning from a neck injury sustained in a crash early last month at Indy, and Vitor Meira, who finished second to Dan Wheldon in the 500.

Wheldon, trying for a record fourth straight IRL win and fifth in six races this season, also is getting a little weary of all the questions about Danica.

“There are other guys out there other than Danica, and a lot of them are pretty good, too,” he said Friday. “But I think we all understand why this is happening and we just have to keep remembering it’s a good thing for all of us.”

Kanaan, Wheldon’s Andretti Green Racing teammate agreed, adding, “Even if she is getting too much attention, if they come to watch her, they’re going to have to watch us. It’s all about bringing people to the track. Once they’re in, we can change their minds.”

With all the attention focused on his female teammate, Rice, the 2004 Indy winner, has been virtually ignored this week. But he said that doesn’t bother him.

“To come here and make a splash is good, and I think she’s handled it well,” Rice said. “She knows there’s still a huge learning curve and that you never stop learning. She’s never been here and she’ll never see a pack tighter than what she’ll see here, and it’s at night, so it might look and feel a little different. But she’ll be fine.”

Patrick earned Rookie of the Year honors at Indy, but it was far from a perfect race as she stalled her engine on one pit stop, got sideways on a restart, igniting a four-car crash, and also bumped wheels with another car.

There has been some subsequent criticism of her driving style by Panther Racing teammates Tomas Scheckter and rookie Tomas Enge, both involved in that Indy crash and both starting on the front row Saturday night, just ahead of third-place Patrick.

But Kanaan, who won here last June and finished second to Helio Castroneves in October, isn’t worried about racing at close quarters with Patrick.

“She’s doing great,” he said. “There are a lot worse guys than her out there. She’s going to make mistakes, like she did, but I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes. I wouldn’t want that pressure.”


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