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Danica Patrick Takes Indy 500 Center Stage

All Danica, all the time. That's the way it has been for the past two weeks in the leadup to Sunday's Indianapolis 500 (search). Twenty-three-year-old Danica Patrick (search), the only woman in the 33-car lineup and only the fourth female to race in the big event at the Brickyard in its 89-year history, is squarely in the spotlight heading into the 500-mile race.

"If she wins, it could mean so much to the IRL and the whole open-wheel sport," said Tony Kanaan (search), the pole winner and the reigning Indy Racing League champion. "That's a lot of weight for a little girl to carry on her back."

It seems, so far, that the 5-foot-2, 100-pound "girl" in question is up to the task. She possesses a tremendous amount of grit, determination and focus, commanding an intense presence and often firing steely glances at the phalanx of reporters and fans that follows her everywhere she goes.

The former high-school cheerleader isn't all business, though. She has been known to smile and even giggle at times.

"I like to have fun, too," she said. "But I put all that away when I'm in my race car or talking with my engineers."

Oh, and another thing: She's fast.

Patrick has been among the quickest drivers since rookie orientation began on the famed 2 1/2-mile oval on May 5. Only a bobble on the first lap of her qualifying effort kept her from winning the pole, and she will take the green flag from fourth on Sunday, the best starting position for a woman at Indy.

Patrick was fastest with a lap of 225.997 mph to lead the one-hour "Carb Day" practice on Friday, the only time the cars got on the track during the week between the end of time trials and the start of the race.

She follows Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, needing only to finish eighth or better to improve on the best previous finish by a female — ninth by Guthrie in 1978.

Patrick, however, is not focused on simply finishing in the top 10 or just staying out of trouble.

"I think I have a great chance of winning this race," the confident Patrick said.

Driving the 650-horsepower IndyCars for the first time this year, Patrick has improved in each of the first four IRL races, culminating in an impressive fourth place last month in Japan.

At Indy, she has been nothing less than a phenomenon.

Patrick would not be the first rookie to win here, although certainly among the least experienced.

Juan Montoya was the defending champion of the rival CART series when he won here in 2000, and Helio Castroneves was a two-year regular in CART and winner of three races before he took the checkered flag as an Indy rookie in 2001.

Still, Castroneves, who also won the next year, said he has no doubt Patrick could win on Sunday, particularly since she is driving a Honda-powered Panoz for the powerful Rahal Letterman Racing team that won here last year with Buddy Rice.

"She is driving for a great team and she has been fast every day since she got here," Castroneves said. "If she can keep her nose clean, she'll be OK. The only thing that might be a problem is you have to have patience and, sometimes, rookies don't have much patience."

Castroneves, starting fifth, and Marlboro Team Penske teammate Sam Hornish Jr., a two-time IRL champion and starting in the middle of the first row, also will be among the favorites Sunday as they try to give Roger Penske a record 14th Indy win.

Others to watch include all four members of Andretti Green Racing, including Kanaan, current IRL points leader Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta.

If one of them can manage to get to Victory Lane, it would be a very big day indeed for team co-owner Michael Andretti, who led more laps than any other nonwinner at Indy. His father, Mario, won the race in 1969, then spent 25 frustrating years trying and failing to win it again.

The two had so many things go wrong here that the term "Andretti Luck" became part of the Indy lexicon.

"We've done everything in our power to put ourselves in a good position," Michael said. "Of course, this feeling doesn't mean anything. I've been here before in this position. We'll see what fate has in store."

And don't forget perhaps the most heartwarming story of the month: Kenny Brack. The 1999 Indy winner, nearly killed in a devastating crash at Texas Motor Speedway in October 2003, was called upon just last week to replace Rice, injured in a crash here on May 10.

Brack responded by posting the fastest qualifying speed of the month, 227.598 mph. Since it came on the second week of time trials, though, he will start 23rd. Nobody has won from that far back since Johnny Rutherford started 25th in 1974 and charged to the second of his three victories.

Still, Brack is confident he can be competitive in basically the same Honda-powered Panoz in which Rice won last year.

"Maybe I'll be a little rusty in traffic, but it's a long race," said Brack, who hasn't raced an IndyCar since his crash. "I think we'll be just fine after the first pit stop."

The third Rahal Letterman entry, Vitor Meira, making his fourth Indy start — from seventh — could be the dark horse in the race.

"Vitor also has great equipment and he's been flying all month," Kanaan said. "I think maybe he's a little under the radar."

Bruno Junqueira, who finished fifth last year, and rookie Sebastien Bourdais, the reigning Champ Car champion, are here representing the rival American open-wheel series; each could be a factor.

There will be three different engines in the race, with Chevrolet, leaving the IRL at the end of the 2005 season, going up against Japanese powerhouses Honda and Toyota.

It has been generally conceded that Honda, which has dominated the IRL since the beginning of 2004 season, has the most power. But the Penske entries, powered by Toyota, aren't conceding anything on the racetrack.

"They seem to have an advantage," Castroneves said. "But Toyota isn't going to just sit back and let that happen — remember, it's not just the fastest car that wins; it's the most consistent. And we have that."

Hornish has been perhaps the IRL's biggest star since winning his first series title in 2001, but he has struggled mightily at Indy. In five starts here, he has yet to finish better than 14th or even complete all 200 laps.

"The big thing is to make it to the end, which I have not done yet," Hornish said. "But we have a great team and two great cars and we've got as good a shot as anybody.

"If I do win here, it would be my 14th (career) win and it would be Roger's 14th at Indy," he added. "I think that would be very nice."

The big question going into Sunday, though, remains: What will Danica do?

Castroneves was asked if it bothers him that most of the questions he and other veterans have fielded this month have been about Patrick.

"It's good for the series, it's good for the sport," he replied. "When I came here they gave me the nickname 'Spider Man.' Maybe they should call her 'Wonder Woman.'"