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All eyes will be on Danica Patrick for IndyCar return

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Sebastien Bourdais was back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Monday. So was Helio Castroneves, who returned to his home away from home to re-acclimate to an Indy car.

But the show really began Tuesday when Danica Patrick’s farewell tour returned to her biggest stage. The world’s most famous female race car driver returned to IndyCar for the first time since 2011 to prepare for her final drive around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in advance of the Indianapolis 500. Her preparations will help kick off IndyCar’s beloved “Month of May” – and Patrick is sure to own the headlines.

“I imagine I’ll probably pop up into the seat fully kitted up once before I get in, just to make sure everything is good, and go over things like, `How the hell do I start this thing?”‘ Patrick said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

And by that, Patrick literally meant how she starts the car and begins her final drive.

She’s been chasing her dreams since she was a little girl in Illinois, and two decades later, she’s ready to call it a career. Her farewell began with NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500, where Patrick was collected in a crash and finished 35th.

But the “Danica Double” was always about bringing her career full circle and walking away at Indy, the place that made her a household name. Patrick led 19 laps and finished fourth as a rookie in 2005 and she was a career-best third in 2009. She’s always thrived on Indy’s main stage, and she doesn’t anticipate that changing this year.

Patrick, who spent last week at boyfriend Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay, Wisconsin, home “watching the snow melt,” was already shifting into race mode and talked confidently about her next hurdle. Yes, it’s been more than six years since she’s been in an Indy car and it has had two body modifications during her absence.

She approached Tuesday much like she did her very first Indy test in 2004.

“When I first drove an Indy car back in the day at Kentucky when no one was watching, now they are going to be watching,” she said. “I’ve got a feeling that if it’s comfortable, it could come back to me really quick. I have to remember the very first time I ever drove an Indy car, having never driven one before, it went fine. So I’ve got to trust that everything will be fine.”

Like it or not, Patrick has earned her spot on the central stage for the final month of her racing career.

With Patrick back at Indy for the May 27 race, everything she does in her GoDaddy-sponsored Chevrolet will be scrutinized. Even Monday, the first day the track opened for testing, had a buzz about Patrick’s presence and she wasn’t even on the track.

Instead, it was Bourdais back on the big oval for the first time since he broke his hip and pelvis when he wrecked qualifying his car for last year’s 500. The injury was supposed to sideline him all year, but he was back in the IndyCar Series before the end of 2017 and already has a win and a pole on his resume this season.

Castroneves, the three-time Indy 500 winner, also got his first laps around Indy in the 2018 configuration of the car. Because he was moved by Roger Penske to the IMSA sports car series this year, the Brazilian will only run this month at Indy and try to grab a record-tying fourth victory. Tony Kanaan, in an A.J. Foyt Racing car, was fastest on the first of three days of testing on Monday at 226.181 mph, and Marco Andretti wasn’t too shabby at third on the speed chart.

IndyCar closed the afternoon with a brief test session of a windscreen it is developing to protect drivers’ heads in the open cockpit cars. Defending series champion Josef Newgarden spent about 45 minutes behind the windscreen at the end of the day and seemed to struggle a bit with glare bouncing off the screen and vision.

Next comes Patrick’s return on Tuesday, which was originally scheduled for late March but was postponed because of a cold and rainy weather. She’s used to attention, she thrives under pressure, and she’s ready for the cameras when she gets back into the car.

There are 35 entries for this year’s race, which means two drivers won’t qualify for the 500. Patrick will be in a Chevrolet fielded by Ed Carpenter Racing, a team that is traditionally strong at Indy, and hasn’t thought at all about potentially missing her retirement race.

“Why would I?” she said. “I’m thinking about going to win the race.”

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).