UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Patrick's third-place finish proves just how driven she actually is

INDIANAPOLIS -- While the motion picture that is Helio Castroneves' life has more sequels than the old "Rocky" movies, the back story to Sunday's 93rd Indianapolis 500 included the two stars of the 2005 race.

It was four years ago that a flamboyant, Englishman who looks and sounds like the Geico Gecko named Dan Wheldon drove to victory in the Indy 500 but his win was overshadowed by the emergence of a beautiful female who nearly won the race in her rookie year named Danica Patrick.

This year, Wheldon and Patrick once again engaged in battle late in the race with Wheldon getting the edge over his female nemesis but their story was overshadowed by Castroneves' victory of epic proportions.

To call Castroneves' latest triumph over adversity when he was tried in federal court for tax evasion only to be acquitted, return to racing and win the Indy 500 a Hollywood story has become cliché -- everyone loves a happy ending.

But, it has to be a big story if Patrick's third-place finish in the Indy 500 is overshadowed.

That is what happened Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Patrick and Wheldon played supporting roles on the biggest auto racing stage of the world to a race driver that once won ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

As former driver and current IndyCar team owner Jimmy Vasser once said, "Helio Castroneves is my favorite actor." By winning the Indy 500 for the third time in his career emphasizes Castroneves' ability to perform under extreme pressure.

Castroneves was the main act but the "Dan and Danica Show" was not only entertaining, it was impressive.

After driving for one of the best teams in IndyCar at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing since 2006, Wheldon's act had grown old and when team owner Chip Ganassi tried to lure Tony Kanaan to the team last summer, Wheldon knew it was time to hit the road. So he returned to the team where his IndyCar Series career started in 2002 at Panther Racing.

By finishing 1.9819-seconds behind Castroneves, Wheldon came close to winning his second Indy 500 in a car that was camouflaged for his sponsor, The National Guard.

As for Patrick, her drive to a third-place finish at Indy was probably more impressive than her victory at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan in 2008, when she became the first female driver to win in a major, closed course racing series.

Patrick is IndyCar's most popular and most controversial driver. She transcends the sport and is a mainstream cultural phenomenon. But for all the fans that love Patrick, there is a portion that believes she is overhyped; that she doesn't deserve all the attention that she gets.

So far this season, however, Patrick has been rock-solid. She was competitive in the season-opening race at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg before she was taken out when rookie Raphael Matos tried to pass her on a portion of the track where passing is virtually impossible.

She battled back to finish fourth in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and fifth in the season's first oval race at Kansas Speedway on April 26.

When she arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the month of May, she had hopes of starting up front but admitted that Team Penske and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing were just a step ahead of her Andretti Green Racing team. That was evident on Pole Day when Patrick qualified 10th and dropped off the radar while almost everyone tuned in to the Castroneves' Soap Opera.

But it's called the Indianapolis 500 for a reason -- it's 500 miles of the fiercest racing on the planet, where speeds exceed 235 miles per hour down the long straightaways of the track that is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009.

It takes bravery, fearlessness and determination and Patrick has all those qualities in abundance.

And she drove with intelligence and patience, picking her way through traffic until she was in the top three with 17 laps left in the biggest race in the world.

She went after Wheldon like a Pit Bull but could only get side-by-side, unable to get enough speed to pass the English Bull Dog.

"I felt like I had a pretty good run on Dan, and he went low and I wish I would have went low before he got low, because if it was side by side going into the corner with me on the inside, it would have worked," Patrick said. "But when you're side by side going into one here, it's not likely because I wasn't sure if they had a chance to clean the top line into one (from tire rubber) it's just got a good idea."

Throughout the month, Patrick liked to tell about the fortune cookie she had when she was in Kansas City in April that said, "A four-wheeled adventure will soon bring you pleasure." She was hoping it meant victory at Indy.

Instead, it meant a third-place finish.

"How many times do you get a fortune cookie tell you a four-wheel adventure is going to bring you happiness?" Patrick said. "Why would they even write that? Who has four-wheel adventures, I guess on a four-wheeler, but how great could that be?

"I think it was a good day. I'm really happy. I wish it would have ended up a little bit better than what it did, but that's the way it goes here, and that's what makes this place so awesome and frustrating.

"The cookie crumbled to third."

Patrick and Wheldon knew they had one chance to get to the front when the green flag waved for the final time with 17 laps left in the race. But when they went side-by-side, it allowed Castroneves to drive away to his "Hollywood Finish" but the "Dan and Danica Show" may be a ratings grabber in the future.

"She is certainly a tough competitor," Wheldon said of Patrick. "I think she's like a lot of those troops, she never gives up so all credit to Danica. But I have to say I'm incredibly proud of the Panther Racing National Guard Team and my IndyCar career there's not many races where I've honestly left the track feeling that we've executed everything perfectly.

"I have to say, I thought they did an absolute phenomenal job. The pit stops were just first class. I didn't have to do too much work on track because they kept making me spots up. It was one of those things at the end where I just didn't have enough for Helio. I was towards the end having to hold off Danica. But they should be incredibly proud of the job they did."

For many drivers, a third-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 would be a tremendous finish but Patrick answered questions and admitted that while it was a good finish, she fell short of her ultimate goal.

"My job is to finish as high as possible and get as many wins as possible," she said. "I'm glad that I'm not like, `Oh, my God, wow, third.'

"I'm paid to do this job, so I wish it could have been a little bit better but it was a good day overall, and it was for the tough month that we had and just how we had to keep our heads down so much of the time, it ended up turning out pretty well.

"I'm glad that people are seeing it more like just a good finish from a good driver."

Make that two good finishes from two great drivers. Wheldon has already experienced victory in the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series title in 2005.

And Patrick continues to improve, which may one day silence the critics that think she only gets the attention because of the way she looks; not the way she drives.

Wheldon and Patrick have a past history.

These two once nearly squared off after an incident at Milwaukee in 2007 after Patrick believes she was run off the race track by Wheldon while trying to pass him on the flat one-mile oval. After that race, she confronted Wheldon and as he walked away, grabbed him by the arm and spun him around.

"She can get feisty every now and then, but so can I," Wheldon said. "I've always thought that she can do the job. I don't treat her like a female on the racetrack. She is just a formidable competitor that doesn't give up. I wish she perhaps would have today because I was sweating with how loose I was because I didn't turn the car.

"But she's an IndyCar winner and to win IndyCar races nowadays is incredibly difficult, and anybody that's an IndyCar winner in my book, it doesn't matter what they look like, what their gender is, they are somebody I'll respect immensely."

And it's time that even Patrick's critics recognize that fact that she is the most competitive female driver in IndyCar racing history. They may not like the self-created drama she brings to track but she is developing into a driver who can step up and deliver, even on a stage as big as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Because the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway was rained out, the 93rd Indianapolis 500 ruled the day without any interference from another race in the United States. Of course, the Grand Prix of Monaco was held earlier in the morning with Jensen Button driving to another victory in his phenomenal season.

Even in spite of the terrible economic climate in the United States, the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway was probably 90 percent full. The most noticeable patches of empty seats were the so-called "bad seats" that are low in the grandstands.

But to attract over 250,000 fans in today's economy only shows how big the Indianapolis 500 really is. It is one of the world's great sporting events and Helio Castroneves delivered with a tremendous story.

NASCAR will get a chance to run on Memorial Day because of the rainout. It was actually kind of nice that the "World's Biggest Race" didn't have to share the spotlight with the 600.

Personally, I think it would be great if Indy was held on Sunday and the Coca-Cola 600 run on Saturday night or Monday afternoon. For those who think that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway should change its time or date so NASCAR drivers can compete at Indy, remember one thing -- "The Masters" doesn't bow to television or outside pressures.

Neither should the Indianapolis 500.

This race is auto racing's version of "The Masters" and if fans want NASCAR drivers to do the double, then maybe the 600 should consider a time change or a date change.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway celebrated its 100th Birthday this year. Lowe's Motor Speedway is celebrating its 50th.

It's time to "respect your elders."

When Helio Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500, he pulled down the frontstraight of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he was met by three IndyCar Series officials in yellow firesuits. They were ordering him to drive to victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and prohibited him from climbing the fence.

Thankfully, Castroneves did not heed their warning and gave the huge throng of fans that cheered his victory at the Speedway a memorable celebration by climbing the fence with his crew in his trademark "Spiderman" celebration.

"I was going over there and they were like, "You've got to go to the Victory Lane." And this yellow guy kind of like pulled me in," Castroneves said. "I said, `I want to get out, and he's like, `No, you've got to stay here.' I was trying to take the stuff and he was literally holding my helmet and myself there. Finally I saw the team come and I said, `I'm sorry, I want I've got to get out.' I wanted to go and climb the fence.

What were they thinking? Castroneves' victory is one of the greatest stories in recent auto racing history and the drivers' unabashed emotion was something to cherish.

NASCAR lives for moments like that -- when a driver is able to celebrate with a trademark burnout or by driving around the race track backwards.

On a day when the Indianapolis 500 returned to glory, IndyCar series officials trying to keep Castroneves from climbing the fence was the only blemish of the day.

Helio Castroneves crying uncontrollably with his bottle of milk in victory lane while being hugged by his mother.

At 20 years old, Mario Moraes of Brazil was considered a dark horse in the Indy 500. At 22, Marco Andretti was trying to become the youngest winner in Indy 500 history while he was still young enough.

Instead, the two drivers crashed in the first turn of the first lap and then engaged in a war of words afterwards.

"I'm really upset with what happened," Moraes said. "I don't know what Marco was doing there. That lap was the first. Just the first corner he was outside. I don't know if he knew, but this was the 500 miles race. I don't know if there was any point in what he did.

"Unfortunately, my spotter didn't tell me that he was looking outside, and I was just driving my line and when I realized, I was in the wall."

Andretti continued the family tradition of "An Andretti never makes a mistake."

"It's totally disappointing," Marco Andretti said. "I should have been smarter than that. That kid (Moraes) is in way over his head with where he is now. I'm sitting next to him, and he just drives up into me. There was no one in sight of him. I should have known better."

"Hey, if we keep doing what we're doing, it's going to be a big book. I'm probably not going to read it, but it's going to be a big one, too much." -- Helio Castroneves after the Indianapolis 500 and the next chapter to his dramatic story.

"Five weeks ago, Helio Castroneves was staring at jail -- an Orange Suit not a Race Suit. Now, he's a three-time winner of the biggest race in the world." -- ABC's Marty Reid calling the final lap of the Indianapolis 500.

"I had so much faith that Helio hadn't done anything wrong. I couldn't understand why he was guilty before he had the trial. That's all I saw, every piece of publicity that came out of Miami was he was guilty, and the way they treated him initially was deplorable. We just said, `Hey, we're with you.' The good news is Helio, myself, his family, we never had to get the other side of the answer -- the final answer was exactly what we thought it would be." -- Roger Penske after winning his record 15th Indianapolis 500 as a team owner and his decision to support Helio Castroneves during his tax evasion trial.

The biggest race of the year is over and the Indianapolis 500 has lived up to its status as the world's biggest race yet again. But now it's a time to return to normalcy and for the IndyCar Series, it's a trip to the Milwaukee Mile. It's short track racing IndyCar style at a track six-years older than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As Paul Newman said in the 1969 motion picture "Winning" -- "Everyone goes to Milwaukee after Indy."

While the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nicknamed "The Brickyard" the Milwaukee Mile is "The Bratyard." No trip to Wisconsin is complete without one, two or even more bratwursts. I'm gaining five pounds just thinking about it.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.