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Looking ahead, Patrick has big decisions after this season

NAPERVILLE, Illinois -- Danica Patrick enjoys being in the spotlight, and that's where the IndyCar starlet will be in this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Patrick gets her first chance to run in the "big cars" at Long Beach after running in the Formula Atlantic cars there in 2004.

"It's a cool event," Patrick said. "Even the LA folk know about it. I think it's going to be a really big draw this year. For me as a driver I like to be involved in events that have a lot of excitement and people around."

Twice featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Patrick should fit right in with the Southern California crowd, racing just a few miles away from Manhattan Beach.

"I put effort into this," Patrick said. "I need to be out in the community -- out in the media -- to raise awareness and brand awareness for those who support me. I do this aggressively because I realize this could all go away quickly. I always make sure the priority is the driving in the race car."

But in this world of TMZ and paparazzi gone wild, Patrick also understands that sometimes the camera catches her in moments of controversy. She realizes her guard must be up at all times because she never knows when she is being photographed or recorded.

"What I realize is that people want to see me and get autographs and that is the point," Patrick said. "But of course there are times when I want to get away. I get recognized more and more all the time. Now, it's in the airport, on the airplane, after I get off the airplane, when I go to the bathroom and when I go to the store.

"Fortunately, I'm not getting that paparazzi feel where people are all over you. I've had people be in an autograph line that are recording on their camera and they are asking me questions so it's almost like it's a TMZ thing. That's just sort of how it goes -- there are pros and cons and I try to go with the pros."

Patrick has a strong business sense which is why she has been able to bank on both her beauty and her driving ability. When she won last year's IndyCar race at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, she became the first female driver ever to win in a major, closed-course racing series. Female race drivers have been victorious in major drag racing events and in the lower ranks of drag racing but never at the top levels such as IndyCar, NASCAR Sprint Cup or Formula One.

Patrick's persona has delivered more than one would expect from someone with just one race victory, but Patrick is a unique case. And she has embraced the business aspect that comes with her popularity.

"Not only is there the race market but [there's] the brand market," Patrick said. "Bobby Rahal probably taught me that the best. He told me to save my money. He also said, `I wanted to create a lifestyle for myself after racing that was at least the same as what I had during.' I have to create a platform that I can continue with after racing so that stuff keeps coming in and I can do the things I want to do and help the people I want to help."

Patrick's mere presence at some events creates a buzz that may lead some to jump to conclusions.

For instance, when she showed up on pit lane at a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Phoenix last November, rumors swirled that she was searching for a ride in NASCAR. In reality, however, Patrick -- who lives in nearby Scottsdale -- was there to visit some of her friends in racing.

"That's fun (to start those rumors,)" Patrick said. "First and foremost, I'm a race car driver. I've got friends. I miss Sam Hornish. The first thing I do is find them and go into their bus and say 'hi'. There is no harm in going to other races. I'm a race car driver, so for me to go to a race is never far-fetched."

Add to the fact Patrick is in the final year of her contract at Andretti Green Racing and the rumors of her departure may increase, although the smart money is no her staying put. After all, she is a sponsor's dream because she generates tremendous attention win or lose.

Patrick also enjoys her lifestyle, which has a lot to do with IndyCar's 17-race schedule that runs from April to mid-October. Compare that to NASCAR's marathon -- which includes 36 points races and two special events, running from early February to late November -- and it's easy to see why.

Also, two top IndyCar drivers who left for NASCAR have struggled. Dario Franchitti had an aborted NASCAR effort in 2008 before he came back to IndyCar this season. Meanwhile, three-time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. continues to struggle at the back of the pack in his second Cup season.

"There have been a lot of struggles with the IndyCar drivers that have gone to NASCAR, but they haven't driven for the top teams, either," Patrick said. "Similar things would happen in any crossover sport if you are not with someone who can put you in the front. It would be a hard conclusion to draw that IndyCar drivers can't do well in NASCAR."

With her contract up at the end of the season, Patrick realizes that within the IndyCar Series paddock alone, she will generate a tremendous amount of attention. She will need to demonstrate her value, not just to current team owners Michael Andretti, Kevin Savoree and Kim Green, but also to other interested team owners who may want to pry her away.

"This isn't something I can do anything with until the summer anyway," Patrick said. "I have no doubt it will be similar to the last time and people will be asking me questions about it. I'm fortunate enough that I have mildly thrived in hot situations and I hope that doesn't change."

Patrick is also a well-paid IndyCar driver, so the lure of bigger bucks to head to another series isn't as big to her as it may be to other drivers.

"The strength of this series is a great thing," Patrick said. "I will evaluate all of my options and go to where my heart wants to be. It's a long season if you are in a series you don't want to be in. And this series has the Indianapolis 500. It's insanely special, insanely fun and insanely disappointing, too. Winning the Indy 500 is big, so let's hope that happens."

There may have been a time when a top NASCAR team would take a chance on Patrick simply for the sponsorship money that would come with it. But with a slumping economy hitting even the bigger NASCAR teams, and the growing uncertainty surrounding General Motors and Dodge's future involvement in the sport, teams can't take a chance on developing a driver from another form of racing when they must produce immediately.

That is why when Patrick signs her next contract; it will be with an IndyCar Series team.

Joey Logano's victory in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race is another indication that the 18-year-old was rushed to the Sprint Cup Series too quickly. If he had spent an entire year in Nationwide this season, he'd have honed his skills for a full-time Cup effort in 2010.

Logano is like the baseball player who's rushed to the major leagues before he is ready, where he loses his confidence and then never realizes his true potential.

Of course, this may not happen to Logano, but anyone who has watched him drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Cup series this season can plainly see that he is struggling.

That is why getting to victory lane in a Nationwide Series race was so important for Logano.

"It's big for me; it's an awesome confidence booster for sure," Logano said. "Looking and saying, 'Hey, I can do this. I am here for a reason. I can win races.' That's big. It's been a long time coming since Kentucky last year and we should have won a lot more. This is what this whole team needed."

Logano showed some racing savvy. He had to hold off his intimidating Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, who was in his rear-view mirror on the final restart of the race.

"I wasn't too nervous, I was just driving as hard as I can," Logano said. "That last restart I knew I had to have a good restart and it was decent, but he had a good one too and I was able to get through (turns) one and two really good and get out there in a big enough lead. Funny because on Monday I was texting Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and told him that we had to win this race. It had been way too long since we won and to get up there and succeed and win this race -- this is one of the tracks that I really like so to get this win is huge."

Logano admits there would be advantages to running the entire Nationwide Series season this year, but remains committed that he will show improvement in Cup as the season progresses.

"I think this year, running back and forth from Cup to Nationwide, sometimes you're at the race track and it might not help," Logano said. "You can't give both teams 100 percent, so sometimes you have an off-weekend on the Nationwide side or the Cup side. For me, this year it's fine. Maybe some year I will want to go for the whole deal, but I was cool with just running the races I've got."

Scott Sharp, the 2001 Indianapolis 500 pole winner who stuffed into the Turn 1 wall on the first lap of the race, will return to the 500 with Panther Racing. Sharp last competed in the IndyCar Series in 2007 for Rahal-Letterman Racing.

Sharp will drive the No. 16 Tequila Patrón Panther Racing Honda Dallara.

"We've been having conversations about having Scott drive for us for the last four years," Panther owner John Barnes said. "As a team, we're excited to get this program finalized early so we can be prepared to make a strong run at the Indianapolis 500 this year with the support of Scott and Patrón. We certainly feel like Scott is a very capable and experienced driver, and he and Dan Wheldon will really be a force during the month."

Sharp will team with the aforementioned Wheldon -- driver of the No. 4 National Guard Panther entry, and '05 Indy 500 winner -- giving Panther one of the most formidable and experienced driver combinations.

Vitor Meira and Panther finished second in the Indy 500 last season and led 12 laps at the 2.5-mile oval after qualifying in eighth position.

Sharp has started a total of 146 IndyCar Series events, more than any other driver in the series' history. He amassed nine victories, six pole positions 38 top-5 and 82 top-10 finishes during his career. The Jupiter, Fla., resident has led a total of 1,032 laps in his IndyCar career. Last season in ALMS, he and co-driver David Brabham scored four LMP2 class victories including an overall win at Lime Rock Park. The duo finished first or second in seven of the 11 races that season.

"There were a lot of people around here today that had a lot more access than is typical. Some fans in the garage area need to respect the drivers a little bit more because they're bringing suitcases of die-casts and autographed items that they want to get signed, and I think that is disrespectful. Yeah it's our job to sign for the fans and treat them nice, but when they've got three suitcases of stuff that's a little ridiculous, and they camp outside your hauler. To me, that's a little wrong. If they had one or two items, I would be happy to sign for them -- that's fine. But three suitcases is a little outrageous." -- Kyle Busch on the fan "all-access" that was used at last weekend's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Nashville Superspeedway.

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is one of the world's great street races. While Formula One has the Grand Prix of Monaco that winds through the streets of Monte Carlo, the IndyCar Series is the main attraction in Sunday's race through the streets of Long Beach. It's a great event to people-watch as some of Southern California's beautiful people come to this event, making it a memorable weekend. Plus the racing is good.

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