By Bruce Martin
April 21, 2008

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Danica Patrick's breakthrough victory in Sunday's Honda Indy 300 in Japan has finally silenced the skeptics who thought "Danica Mania" was more hype than substance; that it was based on her beauty rather than her bravery.

"I wish it would have happened a long time ago but I'm not going to argue with how it happened," Patrick said in a telephone conference call from California less than 24 hours after her historic first win. "It happened for a reason.

"What a relief. I can say winning has always there. We all have dreams at being the best at something; winning the checkered flag ... dreams really do come true. You just have to be persistent enough. When times are hard, you go a little harder. You don't give up. A lot of times, that is the difference.

"I'm definitely a persistent one and work very hard and will continue to work very hard."

She also will be remembered as the "first female" ever to win a major auto race. While such drag racers as Shirley Muldowney, Ashley Force and Melanie Troxel have won in drag racing, Patrick's series races on closed race courses against more than one competitor at a time.

That is what makes Patrick's feat truly historic.

"I do feel kind of old today," Patrick quipped. "Yes, it's going to be one of those things that [is] remembered because it's a first. I've definitely thought about that before. I've hoped and wanted that as a person. I did think it would be nice to be the first female to win in history. With history going for a very long time, then I will be mentioned for a very long time."

"I thought a lot about it and a lot of races I had better opportunities than others. One of them was Motegi. It's where everything started in 2005. I always feel that I ha[ve] that opportunity. I seem to have better results when I'm nervous and sometimes when I'm a little unsure and don't know what to expect.

"It definitely felt like that with two days of rain and a flood coming down Turn 4. Those were things that came through my mind yesterday, that anything could happen and I needed to focus on the win."

In doing so, she finally has answered all of the critics that have followed her almost from the start of her career.

When Patrick burst onto the IndyCar scene following the '05 Indianapolis 500, a race she nearly won by leading 32 laps before giving up the lead to eventual winner Dan Wheldon just seven laps from the finish, the expectation levels rose to almost unrealistic proportions.

She was a phenomenon, a rare combination of attractiveness and skill, and the first female driver with a legitimate chance of winning in a major closed course racing series.

Before that was going to happen, however, her fans, the media and even Patrick needed a little patience. Wins don't come easily in a series that includes teams owned by Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti.

When that didn't happen during her first two years on the circuit, she left Rahal Letterman Racing at the end of the '06 season and joined Andretti Green Racing, believing that would be the team that would eventually take her to Victory Lane.

Ironically, her greatest competition would come from her own teammates at AGR, which in '07 included Indy 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti, '04 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan and talented youngster Marco Andretti.

It was in that competitive environment that Patrick was able to increase her own competitive desire. She finished a then-career high second at Belle Isle in Detroit last September and was in contention for victory throughout the season.

"What I've gained [from] my teammates and pushing to the next level was [a] positive attitude," Patrick said Sunday night in Long Beach, Calif. after returning to the United States for the first time since her historic victory. "They would say, 'when you win your first race, this is what you are going to do.' It was nice to hear that from Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan."

That attitude, along with a smart race strategy devised by team manager Kyle Moyer allowed Patrick to go 51 laps on her final tank of Ethanol and have enough speed at the end to blow past race-leader Helio Castroneves with three laps to go in Sunday's race.

The win drew tears of joy from Patrick, along with her parents T.J. and Bev and her husband, Paul Hospenthal.

More important to the series, Patrick has also helped IndyCar create a wave of momentum that should make this year's Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend one for the ages, especially with the series unified after rival Champ Car Series announced it would cease operations in February, allowing its teams to join IndyCar.

"It was great that unification happened, that it was put together and everyone looked at the big picture," Patrick said after watching the final laps of the Champ Car Series finale in the Long Beach Grand Prix. "The momentum of the series is clear. The IndyCar Series has been growing over the last couple of years and there were some great things that happened over the winter. I didn't even like to bring up the split in the series because most fans never really understood it, but we have a bright future for IndyCar.

"This is just a start. It will snowball from here."

Patrick's victory has tremendous historical significance, but by the time she straps herself into a race car Saturday morning at Kansas Speedway to begin practice for next Sunday's IndyCar race, she will be looking forward, rather than reflecting on her victory.

"I've already been thinking about Kansas," Patrick said. "I want to keep my win mine for a while. I think there are individual wins on weekends. The public recognizes the clear victories. While it was obviously a great race in Japan, there have been plenty of others that were very challenging and rewarding and some of them weren't wins.

"You work hard to do the best you can at every race. For those times you don't win, the wins you get pay you back for when it should have happened.

"Like any good champion you move on and try to win the next one. Come Kansas when you strap in for the first practice session, this win is over with and you have a new one to go after."

But Patrick admits to considering the significance of what her win might represent to other female drivers.

"A lot of women hadn't really proved on a consistent basis that they could be a good driver and always run up front," said Patrick. "I think there had been times when they had done well but not consistently.

"I can't tell you that I blame them for not believing that we could do it. But when you have 100 guys come through, finding one good one, the odds are a lot better than 100 girls since it takes a lot longer for 100 to come through. The odds are against us.

"But I grew up with never really using guys as a reference, using drivers as a reference, and if I wasn't fast enough, I wasn't fast enough. That was the most important thing. I didn't think about it like that. I didn't think, 'Oh, I'm the best girl out here today.'

"I grew up with the right attitude to translate into a more competitive world. I thank my family for that."

Now that Patrick has won her first IndyCar race, she not only is focused on two other potential firsts: becoming the first woman to win at Indy and the first to win the IndyCar title.

"I'm a consistent driver but you don't win championships without winning races," Patrick said. "Hopefully we can do that for sure and win some more races. It will be challenging with more cars on the track. Last year Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti had 11 top-two finishes each and the one win was the difference. I think it will be a little more shaken up this year and exciting.

"I would be a fool not to think about it."

A lot of people who believed Patrick was little more than a pretty face probably know the feeling today.

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