HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Danica Patrick’s moment of clarity came three years ago.

It was the Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan International Speedway, a race made memorable by a meltdown. Patrick ran out of gas with less than three laps to go, climbed from her car and embarked on a foot-stomping, fist-shaking tantrum before taking refuge behind the pit wall.

Never did it cross her mind that people were watching.

“I figured, ‘Oh, the last couple laps of the race are going on – they’re not looking at me right now,'” Patrick said. “Then I kind of find out there was a camera focused purely on me.”

From the moment Patrick joined the Indy Racing League, just about all the cameras have been focused on her.

It’ll be that way again this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway when Patrick lines up in the season-ending Firestone Indy 300, where two stories will likely take center stage: The super-tight championship battle between Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe, and Patrick’s plans for 2010 and beyond.

“We feel pretty comfortable — although it’s not our announcement to make and it’s a little bit premature — that she’s going to be with us and she’s going to be with us for a reasonably good term,” said Terry Angstadt, the president of IndyCar’s commercial division. “She’s a star.”

Patrick has long said she won’t reveal anything until the season ends, although The Indianapolis Star first reported last month that she has agreed to a three-year extension with Andretti Green Racing. Asked twice about that extension last week, Patrick didn’t say a word either time.

Her teammate, Tony Kanaan, can relate on some level to what IRL’s most marketable driver is going through. He handled contract renegotiations last year, albeit ones that didn’t command the attention that Patrick’s are getting.

There’s long been expectations she will eventually make the jump to NASCAR, likely with Tony Stewart’s team. Patrick has said she’s considering “some NASCAR stuff,” but immediately follows that up by insisting that no decisions have been made on what that means.

The most popular theory is that Patrick will continue with IRL, while also getting some experience in NASCAR’s Nationwide or trucks series, possibly as early as next year. If Patrick even knows, she’s not saying.

“It’s a distraction,” Kanaan said. “But that’s the price that you pay to be a superstar, and she is. The reality is, she’s huge. She’s big. She’s a huge asset for anybody, for any series.”

Depending on how she does Saturday, Patrick could finish as high as fourth in this year’s IRL standings. She’s improved her overall placing every year in IRL, going from 12th overall in 2005 to ninth in 2006, seventh in 2007 and sixth in 2008.

Winning in Japan last year, while historic, didn’t really leave Patrick feeling any more relaxed.

“I didn’t feel that much different afterward,” she said. “I felt the same pressure to win, to win again and there’s that old saying: You’re only as good as your last race. … You have a little bit more confidence, I suppose, but I didn’t really feel that much different. I’m just continuously learning.”

Patrick had five top-five finishes in this season’s first eight races. However, she hasn’t finished higher than sixth in any of the season’s last eight races, perhaps indicating that all the hype about her future could be taking a toll.

Kanaan doesn’t see it that way.

“It hasn’t affected her performance yet. And if it hasn’t by now, I don’t think it will,” said Kanaan, who says he doesn’t know what Patrick’s schedule will be in 2010, and adds that he’s told his friend that he doesn’t want to know until she announces it publicly.

Patrick does acknowledge this much: She’s paid a high price for fame.

So this year, instead of letting anger and frustration show, she’s made a conscious effort to hide her emotions. They’re still there, of course, but she’s hopeful that the days of people remembering episodes like stomping around at Michigan are behind her.

And that’s also why, when her future comes up, she clams up. She’s told confidantes that she’s not ready to reveal anything, and doesn’t know when that will change.

“Getting mad really didn’t give me the best performances,” Patrick said. “I will never know if it affects me out there. I won’t. I feel like I deal with it the best possible way and I try to keep people around me that are good, that are positive, that are honest and good for me as a driver. That’s the best I can do.”


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