Bruce Martin
Monday March 2nd, 2009

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- While the IndyCar Series has one of the longest offseasons in sports, Danica Patrick doesn't mind because it allows her to be the face of the series in a different way than the steely look of determination that peers through a race visor.

If she wasn't teasing fans this offseason with her commercials, taking her fifth shower of the day on webcam, then she was showing off her chassis again in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

Last week, however, the IndyCar Series finally started shaking off the cobwebs of an offseason that began in September 2008, and there's plenty to look forward to in '09, including the return of Patrick. While she was no better than 15th quick out of 22 car/driver combinations that posted lap times in the Open Test at Homestead-Miami Speedway, that matters little because Patrick is the face of IndyCar. And what a beautiful face it is. If this is what it takes for IndyCar to get attention in the mainstream media heading into it's April 5 season open, so be it.

"The offseason was good," Patrick said last week. "I seemed to be preparing for photo shoots quite a bit and going to conventions and signing autographs and terribly exciting things like that. But it stayed really full and busy. I don't get bored by not being in the race car because I have plenty of other things to worry about and do, so there is never a dull moment in the `Danica Racing Camp.'"

Her camp has plenty of followers, which may seem strange considering she has just one career victory in IndyCar. But remember, Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains NASCAR's most popular driver and he has just one win since May 2006.

Both are icons in their own form of auto racing, and both connect to the masses in a way no other driver does. Perhaps that's why both have lucrative deals to represent -- they reach a youthful, fun-loving and inventive audience.

"For me, I fill the time pretty easily, so if nobody else is testing I don't feel like I'm falling behind -- so we are all even," Patrick said. "But if people are doing things, then I feel like I need to be out there doing something."

When Patrick was asked to pose for Sports Illustrated in 2008, she thought it was a once-in-a-career opportunity. When she was asked to pose again in 2009, she thought it might become an annual ritual.

"Let's hope this becomes a trend," Patrick said. "I was very, very flattered when I got the second invitation. There was such a positive response from the internet views. You have to look at the nuts and bolts of it and the point of the story is people buy the magazine and look on the internet at the pictures and they were doing that so I was flattered to be back. I was flattered to be a model for a day."

Patrick's participation in this year's issue was different from last year, in which she had a five-page spread. This year the issue opened with Patrick saying "Start your engines" to the swimsuit edition.

But it wouldn't be typical of Danica unless she was involved in some sort of controversy. This year's version involved an airbrush. Patrick has a lower-back tattoo of an American flag. It's been there since her days of racing in the junior formula series in England, but sometimes the photographer or the client chooses to have a clean look to the body so those tattoos are often airbrushed away. That's what happened with Patrick. It became the talk of the internet and made its way to such talking heads as Dennis Miller and Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Network.

"How funny, right?" Patrick said. "I'm very flattered that someone would take the time to talk about my tattoo. It's a good thing I picked out a tattoo that I really liked because now people know that I have one. It's just amazing how some of the smaller things nowadays make news.

"I guess it's a good sign that people want to hear about me and know what is going on."

But cuteness and sex appeal will only take Patrick so far. She realizes she needs to pick up her game to get to the next level on the track, which means more victories on her way to becoming a real contender for the IndyCar Series title.

"I think it is absolutely possible," Patrick said. "I think I'm just that little bit away here and there to make that happen and put myself in a position each weekend to take home more than just one win.

"My greatest area will be in road course racing. A few wins is a few wins, whether they are on ovals or on road courses. We are pushing really hard really early to get the things we need to work on up to par."

If Patrick can do that, she'll really give her fans and critics something to talk about .

Matt Kenseth had a legitimate shot at winning the first three NASCAR Sprint Cup races this season because of his impressive career record at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But any dreams of a "Three-peat" for this year's winner of the Daytona 500 and the Auto Club 500 at California blew up in a puff of smoke when his engine broke after just six laps in Sunday's Shelby 427.

"It's disappointing we didn't get to race today, but those guys do a great job on engines," Kenseth said. "Doug Yates (engine builder) and the guys at Roush Yates Engines do a great job, and without their horsepower we couldn't win races like last week. I sure can't complain about those guys.

"I think it's the first failure we've had in a couple of years. It's just something that happens every now and again and it's just unfortunate it happened to us today. It doesn't make it any easier that we won the last two weeks, because we wanted to come out here and compete again today. It's been a tough weekend, and we'll have to put it behind us and move on to next week."

The finish was only the second 43rd-place showing in Kenseth's Sprint Cup career, with the first coming in the 2003 finale at Homestead, the weekend after Kenseth and the No. 17 team claimed the 2003 Cup title.

The finish dropped him from the Sprint Cup points lead to third, with Jeff Gordon taking over the No. 1 spot.

Kenseth is off to a great start, so he can take solace in the fact that "two out of three ain't bad."

One year ago, some wondered if team owner Roger Penske wasn't taking a gamble turning to Ryan Briscoe to drive in the IndyCar Series. After all, Briscoe's initial foray into the series ended with a series of crashes, including a fiery mess at Chicagoland Speedway when he was driving for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing in 2005.

And after Briscoe crashed in three of his first five races for Penske last year, some wondered if he would make it through the season. But Briscoe had a strong finish to the 2008 season, and looks primed for more in 2009.

He was the fastest driver in last week's Open Test at Homestead-Miami Speedway, running 214 laps in the two-night test with a fast lap at 212.156 miles per hour. That was faster than defending series champion Scott Dixon, who had a fast lap of 211.825 mph for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.

"We don't get to test a lot and it's nice to be able to say you are satisfied coming out of a test," Briscoe said. "The team is working really well. It's good to get Will Power acclimatized, so he is coming away [better] as well."

Power is Briscoe's new teammate for 2009, taking over the No. 3 entry previous driven by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who is set to begin his tax evasion trial in federal court in Miami this week.

Power was the seventh-fastest at testing. Marco Andretti was third quick at 211.274 mph followed by teammate Tony Kanaan's 210.819 mph and Dario Franchitti's 210.603 mph. Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion, returns to the series after a one-year trial in NASCAR.

Rookie Mike Conway was impressive for Dreyer & Reinbold when he was ninth-quick at 210.225 mph. Former Champ Car winner Robert Doornbos of The Netherlands was 12th at 209.584 mph for Newman/Haas/Lanigan. Milka Duno also made her debut in a third NHLR entry and was 17th at 209.984 mph.

But at the top of the list was Briscoe, who has taken over the lead driving position at Team Penske and has shown how far he has come in the last year.

"I haven't changed my approach at this point," he said. "Helio definitely has been a huge asset to the team and he helped me a lot last year because we were really able to interact and help each other out throughout the year. I will be expecting the same with Will on board. I have more experience and I'm able to bring a little bit more to the table."

Not long after Robert Doornbos climbed into the Newman/Haas/Lanigan entry for his first laps in an IndyCar, he began to wonder if he was doing the right thing.

The former Champ Car and Formula One driver from The Netherlands had never competed on an oval track before and when he was whizzing around Homestead-Miami Speedway at white-knuckle speed he began to have his doubts.

"The first five laps, I thought, `Why did I put my name on that contract? It's going to be a long year,'" Doornbos recalled. "Then, you get up to pace, up to speed and are flat and you think it's ok, this is actually quite fun. You have to do small changes and not big ones, but my engineer and I are starting to understand each other and that is a good thing."

Doornbos made a big change when he came to terms with the IndyCar team to take over the ride driven by Justin Wilson in 2008. He proved to be a quick learner in last week's testing, ranking 12th quick with a top lap at 209.584 mph.

Doornbos hopes to become the biggest name in IndyCar racing from The Netherlands since Arie Luyendyk, who won the Indy 500 in 1990 and 1997.

Luyendyk is serving as Doornbos' driving coach in IndyCar.

"I watched some of his races on YouTube and he is quite a master," Doornbos said. "He came to visit me at my first Champ Car race at Las Vegas in 2007, we celebrated on the podium and since then we are friends and he is working with me here. He gave me some good advice based on the ovals where he knows

"Say goodnight, Gracie." -- Kyle Busch after he passed both Jeff Burton with 18 laps to go and race-leader Clint Bowyer with 17 to go in Sunday's Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Busch is from Las Vegas and it's the first time he has won a Cup race in his hometown.

"It's not for me. I'll never say never because maybe late in my career it could be an option, but for me, with the unification we had last year, there are great races here with the Indianapolis 500 the marquee event. I'd almost be an idiot to ever leave this series." -- Scott Dixon, the two-time IndyCar Series champion when asked if he would ever consider NASCAR.

Birthdays at this age are something you grow to regret; not embrace. For all the anticipation and excitement that come with a birthday when you are younger seem to end once you hit your 20s. After all, the last big birthday to look forward to is 21. After that, they become milestone birthdays that are usually marked with "Over the Hill" slogans. Well, Friday is another one of those milestone birthdays for me and no, I'm not looking forward to it. Getting to be another year older I can handle, but when it begins to be measured in decades, don't expect me to be looking forward to that.

But, as a wise man once said, "It beats the alternative." And, if they measured birthdays in terms of maturity level, I'd still be 25.

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