All photos courtesy IndyCar

Even if Danica Patrick wins Indy 500, there won’t be any more coming back

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Tuesday marked Danica Patrick’s first full day of practice for the Indianapolis 500 since 2011.

While Patrick may have appeared a bit rusty – she was 18th fastest out of 34 drivers that took to the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in the afternoon practice – the key for her was it was a start.

And from here, as each passing practice day goes by, she hopes to become more consistent, knock off even more rust and most of all, to become faster and faster.

“First off, I’m glad the (open INDYCAR) test ended up getting moved to two weeks ago instead of six weeks ago (due to weather) just to be a little bit more fresh from that,” Patrick said after Tuesday’s session. “But it was good to have all that time by myself for the most part. I mean, I think I drove behind Ed (team owner Ed Carpenter) for a few laps at the end of the day when we were here two weeks ago.

“So, you know, today it’s everybody, especially at the end of the day it’s happy hour – or it could be unhappy hour if your car’s not very comfortable because there’s a lot of cars out on track.

“I jumped into the back of a group, and then got into kind of the middle of the group, was able to pull away from the car behind, close up a little bit on the car ahead.

“I felt pretty good. I’m still not completely confident in traffic. They’re trying to encourage me to use my tools and the bars, you know, the weight jacker and things. I’m like, I need to feel the traffic first. Like before we create another variable as to what’s going on, I need to familiarize myself and get sharp again with the traffic and just the tendencies of the car.

So, yeah, I felt like it was a really solid day. I feel like the car has a lot of good natural speed in it. It was very smooth. We tried a handful of things and found some stuff that worked.

“It definitely feels like understeer and traffic is going to be the determining factor of where you go. You can get a decent lap, but once you get close up on a car in front, you’re going to deal with the front getting really light on you.

“That’s the job at hand, how do you fix that and make yourself feel comfortable alone, find that balance. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Getting back into the swing of things in an Indy car after being out of one for nearly the last seven years is a challenge. While some might think it’s like riding a bicycle, once you get re-acclimated, the Indy car of 2011 is completely different than today’s car, Patrick said. “Definitely relearning the feel, remembering kind of the pattern of lifting and sort of the timing of it, where you do it in the corner, where you downshift, when you up-shift, when you leave it, little things like that.

“I would say that just driving the car and being distracted with other things, like adjustments and traffic and looking in my mirrors and things like that, I’m getting a little bit more comfortable and almost reminding myself like, ‘Hey, you’re not thinking hard enough about that corner there, and you’re doing 230, so … but that’s what you need to get to.

“You need to get to the point where driving the car is very natural and instinctive on what’s happening, be able to digest the other scenarios, the cars around you, the adjustments you’re making, thinking ahead on the adjustments, timing passes.

“You need to create a lot of room for that kind of stuff out there as opposed to just driving the car. The race is very little of just driving the car and a lot of the other stuff.”

Patrick reflected back on the open INDYCAR test two weeks ago, where she got back into an Indy car for the first time and how quickly she picked things back up from her previous tenure in the sport.

“The very first day I was in the car, it felt way worse than what I thought it was going to feel,” she said. “Day two was much better than I thought it was going to feel.

“I would say for day one of Indy 500 week, weeks, call it a fortnight, right, not a month any more unfortunately, but I would say today went really well. We accomplished what we wanted to. We ran alone. We tried things. We got the car to turn a little bit better. We got in traffic for a good few laps, quite a few.

“I’d say today was a really good day, really solid day. I kind of kept the mantra in mind like I had when I came to the test, that it’s about building confidence, not breaking confidence.

“So, you know, I think the team is very solid and we have great cars. It’s a great organization. I don’t need to be silly. We can rely on teammates, you know, pace ourselves a little bit here and there.”

When asked what she recalls of preparing for her first Indy 500 in 2005 and what it’s like preparing for her eighth and final 500 this year, Patrick was very matter of fact.

“Do you remember what was going on 13 years ago?” she said. “It’s pretty tough to remember exactly the way that the car felt compared to now. We’re talking about 13 years, a heck of a lot of laps in different cars and situations.

“But, you know, I think the over-sweeping feeling every time I come to this track is that you have to be humble and respectful of it, and that you’re going very fast, things happen very fast. You can go out from one run to the next and not change anything and the car can be different. You just need to keep your wits about you.

“I mean, for the very beginning of the month of May compared to my very first month of May, in general I’d say I’m humbled by the fact that the car has a lot of good, natural speed. It’s really just a matter of making a good racecar then.

“Of course, back in those days, at this point in time, we weren’t running in a pack at all, we were only working on speed. The whole first week was really just about getting ready for qualifying. Yeah, we’re not in that scenario now.”

The scenario Patrick is in now is preparing for the next chapter of her life. Not her racing career, as that will end when the checkered flag falls at the 500 on May 27 (unless she fails to qualify for the race this weekend, which appears unlikely).

Once the 500 concludes, Patrick will be moving forward even more with her new book, clothing line, and her own wine label, as well as other areas she intends to branch out her personal brand into.

“You know, Bobby Rahal gave me great advice before I was an IndyCar driver, when I was signed on to do Formula Atlantic for him,” she said. “That’s that you need to save your money, don’t spend it all, and think about when you’re done racing. The fact for him, he wanted to be able to live the same lifestyle after racing as during, even though of course your salary goes away. What else can you do to provide that? What can you do to build a financial structure to do that, to live the same lifestyle?

“That always stuck with me from a very long time ago. That was probably, what, 2002, 2003, that he told me that. I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind. I think that’s to some degree some of what has motivated me to remember that there is going to be a lot of time after racing. Here I am a little younger than probably what I thought I’d be when I retired.

“At the same point, what year did I start, I was — 2005, so I was 23. I mean, I remember thinking to myself, I don’t know, maybe I’ll do it for 10 years. It’s not that far off (laughter).

“Anyway, I guess I wasn’t so far off with two different series. Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’m excited about the next phase. I know that racing has given me everything I have, it’s given me every opportunity I have. It really all started here.”

In seven appearances in the 500, Patrick has two top-5 finishes (including a best of third place in 2009) and four other top-10 showings. Her worst finish and the only finish outside the top-10 was 22nd in 2008 due to a crash.

So, would she entertain the possibility of not ending her racing career if she were to win the 500?

“No, absolutely not. That would be the perfect way to never come back. Don’t you think? Yeah, don’t you think? Just mic drop that thing. That would be the perfect way to go out.

“If you talk to anybody in the last five years about, am I going to do Indy? Personal, like family, I said I’d never do it again. No way. Like, I’m not going to — just not going to do it. It’s been too long since I’ve been in the car.

“The way that it all went down with being able to have time to prepare and be really focused, like, I watched Kurt (Busch) do the double (in 2014). I really tried to do the double the second year I was gone. But I watched him do it, how much back and forth you have to do.

“You can do it, but that to me, based on the fact that I had done so well here so many times, had so much fun history here in my own memory, like, I didn’t want to come back just to do the double. I felt like I could within the first two years I was gone and still do a really good job. But after being gone for three, four, five, six, seven years, I was, like, I didn’t think I’d ever do it again.

“I have to say that only just because you never know. But, look, if I win, I really don’t think I would come back. It would be perfect. It would be perfect just like that.”

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IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

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