INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It only took four words to tarnish five years of adulation.
By proclaiming: "It's not my fault" after qualifying 23rd for Sunday's 94th Indianapolis 500, Danica Patrick drew the surprising ire of the fans sitting in close proximity.
For the first time in her career, IndyCar's most popular and visible driver was serenaded with boos at the track where she drove into America's consciousness. Now it wasn't like she stopped her car on the track and stomped off like Kyle Busch or berated her crew over the radio like Kevin Harvick.
But, evidently because Patrick doesn't win like those NASCAR stars, she doesn't get a free pass for such an innocuous statement. Judging by the reaction on chat rooms and forums, the majority considered it everything from bad manners to runaway arrogance.
And that declaration and the firestorm afterwards might be the real line of demarcation.
Is the precocious princess as good as she truly believes or has DanicaMania gone south, literally and figuratively?
A year removed from finishing third at Indianapolis and fifth in the IZOD IndyCar point standings, Patrick bears no resemblance to that driver. In five starts this season, she's managed one Top 10 finish (7th at St. Pete) and her average starting spot is 14th.
Here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where she had never taken the green flag worse than 10th, she's the slowest of the four females in the field and lines up 23rd.
"Clearly this has not been her best month of May," said Bobby Rahal, who gave her the ride that she used to lead late at Indy in 2005 and launch her career.
"But it's not like everyone else on that team is in the front row. Obviously, none of them are having the month they anticipated. But I don't think it's just one car or driver."
There's no denying the Andretti Autosport Armada of Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, John Andretti and Patrick are well off the pace of Ganassi and Penske.
Following her post-mortem in qualifying, where basically she said the car was undriveable, Patrick pondered what she'd said and copped to being emotional, which is hardly a crime at 16th & Georgetown.
The tactful approach would have been to say it was a good team that just couldn't get a hold of the race track and it was a scary ride. But part of her personality that people find attractive is when she gives Dan Wheldon a shove, smacks Jacques Lazier or tries to confront Ryan Briscoe.
When she got super loose going into Turn 1 at IMS as a rookie during time trials and refused to lift, she earned a lot of respect across the board.
But a lot of that has been replaced by jealousy. Even though her national profile helps raise the awareness of IndyCar, a big percentage of the paddock despises all the publicity she receives.
"If she wasn't pretty, nobody would write about her," growls one veteran. "One fuel-mileage win in how many years of racing? And she thinks she can make it in Cup? Please."
Her dalliance into NASCAR this year at the behest of her IndyCar sponsor, GoDaddy.com, has seemed to divide the IndyCar camp even more. Many worry she's leaving after 2010, while others say good riddance.
She pooh-poohed the idea that going from ARCA to Nationwide to IndyCar has created the slump but Juan Pablo Montoya predicted months ago that she would struggle trying to come to grips with 3,500-pound cars with no grip compared to her aero-friendly Dallara.
Other than her ARCA debut when she finished sixth, the 27-year-old native of Roscoe, Ill. hasn't had much to smile about. To be honest, she seems miserable most of the time.
"She definitely needs to change her attitude, not with the public or her fans, but in herself," said Kanaan, who gave her a pep talk a week ago when he was the one who probably needed one.
"She's not too happy right now and I can relate to that because I've been there. I had a terrible year in 2009. So I just told her to start having fun again."
Being out-qualified by rookies Ana Beatriz and Simona De Silvestro had to grind on DP and while there's grumblings the Andretti team lacks the proper shock technology, her chassis savvy is often called into question.
"I don't know about now but Buddy (Rice) and Vitor (Meira) did all the heavy lifting when she ran for us," said Rahal, who campaigned Patrick in Atlantics for two years before bringing her to the IndyCar series. "We all know she can drive but can she set a car up? I don't know."
When she joined AGR in 2007, Danica's No. 1 ally was Dario Franchitti, one of the best in the business at chassis setup. He left after one year and then engineer Eddie Jones developed a nice rapport and it showed. Not so much nowadays.
So something is amiss. Whether her PR machine at IMG has disrupted her focus, the stock car venture has ruined her rhythm, maybe a lack of chemistry with her team, or all of the above.
"I'm not a different driver than I was five years ago," she said after qualifying.
Maybe not, but if there's ever been a time in her life that she needs a result, it's probably Sunday. And she's at her favorite track, where her smooth style has always been a good fit.
"My goal has never changed," she said. "I want to win the Indianapolis 500."
But, considering how she's been struggling, that's going to have to wait at least one more year.
Providing, of course, she comes back to race at the Indy 500 and not the Brickyard 400.