By Bruce Martin
May 18, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- For the 33 drivers who will start Sunday's Indianapolis 500, there are plenty of keys and strategies that will get one of them into victory lane in the World's Biggest Race.

As the highest-profile driver in the field, Danica Patrick will be the focus of plenty of attention from the fans and the media.

If Patrick wins the race, she would make history by becoming the first female driver to win racing's biggest event. A victory by Patrick would stand the test of time and be one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as it celebrates its 100th Anniversary.

But in order to have her face etched on the Borg-Warner Trophy, Patrick will have to devise a plan to be first to the checkered flag.

So, what are the keys for Patrick to win the Indy 500?

Patrick will start 10th on Race Day, and, while it's not at the front, the inside of Row 4 is a pretty good starting position for any driver in the field. The first key at that point is to have a car that works well in traffic and can systematically drive through the field in the first portion of the race.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is fast and narrow, which means it's difficult to pass. But Patrick has displayed a penchant for finding a way to the lead group of cars, either by making passes on the track or through pit stops in the race.

"In the past, the qualifying has been reasonably good, but it's a matter of staying there," Patrick said. "I think that's going to be the real focus, is just to not drop back and to not lose positions on the track on starts or restarts, to stay on top of the car throughout the race and keep up with the way that the track is changing, and then to have really clean pit stops."

Patrick's race was ruined last year when she and Ryan Briscoe collided trying to exit the pits. Patrick was so furious at Briscoe that she climbed out of the race car and began to march down pit road toward his Team Penske pit area before she was intercepted by Charles Burns, the director of corporate security at IMS. While a confrontation was avoided, Patrick learned a lesson from that incident.

"I think that's going to have to be a really, really big focus for me -- getting in and out of the pits and getting in and out of the box at full speed all the time," Patrick said. "If we do those things well, I believe that we can stay there. Then it will be a shootout in the end."

See the above incident or the confrontations she has had with Dan Wheldon at Milwaukee or Milka Duno at Mid-Ohio last year.

"I've learned from the past," Patrick said. "Look, the emotional Danica is still there, but there's a time and a place. The time and place is not every weekend. So it's just easier. I think I always felt in the past like I had to prove to people that I cared and that I wasn't happy being fifth or 12th or something by being mad. It just doesn't really pay off, and it turns people off. It's a lot easier and a lot more fun to be relaxed.

"It's all bunnies and rainbows around here."

It's one thing to have a fast IndyCar in four-lap qualifications, but it's much different to have one that is fast in traffic.

Even on the 2-1/2-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, traffic will be a key on Race Day. Having a car that excels in "dirty air" -- the turbulence of the air from the cars on the track -- is vitally important.

"It's different from every other track really because it's the kind of place that if the car isn't right, you cannot make it go fast," Patrick said. "You can't hustle it around. You just can't make it do it. If you do, quickly the car gets out of control and the track bites you. We're going faster here than anywhere else. I think it's really the one place that we go that the track is sort of a little bit bigger and more powerful than you are. And I think that that makes it really something that you have to respect.

"If the car isn't good, don't think you can be better than it, don't think you can overcome it. I think every now and again you get on with the track really well. I feel lucky that Indy's a place that I've had good races here in the past and been fast."

In 1988, Rick Mears came very close to getting lapped, but was able to stay on the lead lap. He was able to get his race car fine turned, and in the end Mears claimed the third of his Indy 500 wins.

Patrick realizes that patience when the car is not at its best and staying on the lead lap are vitally important.

"There's no doubt that you do have to have a fast car to win the Indy 500, because it usually comes to that last sort of 20 laps or five-lap shootout where it's all about speed," Patrick said.

In a 200-lap race, fuel strategy can be very important. Stretching out fuel mileage over the course of a race that will include as many as eight or nine pit stops can often get a driver in the right place at the right time at the end.

Again, the timing of the caution periods can be very important. Patrick was able to pit one lap before the yellow flag flew at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, and that perfectly-timed stop vaulted her to second place behind Dario Franchitti.

Once near the front, Patrick had the speed to race with the leader before eventually finishing fourth.

But the key is if she had pitted after the yellow flag fell, she would have been much farther back.

The same thing can happen at Indy.

This is very important because the Indy 500 can test even the coolest driver's patience. So far, Patrick has treated Indy with reverence and respect.

"I like it here," Patrick said. "I enjoy it. I embrace the month. I have a lot of fun. The first year I came here, I took the advice from all the people around me, the people that have been here the most. The advice was to respect the track, to be patient, and I do that. So, you know, maybe that's part of it."

Patrick is always in demand by fans, sponsors and the media, especially at the Indy 500. But she has done an excellent job of thriving on the pressure.

By having an organized schedule and knowing when to say "yes" and when to say "no," Patrick can focus on the most important aspect of all -- trying to win the Indy 500.

"I just respond to what's out there and how I feel," she said. "So I try not to live up to expectations, try not to feel like I have to live up to expectations or be overwhelmed and concerned, overly concerned, with what everyone thinks I should do. I just do what I think I can do."

No matter how competitive an IndyCar driver is or how fast his race car runs, luck plays a major role for any Indy 500 winner.

When Al Unser, Jr. won the second of his two Indy 500s in 1994, he was about to be lapped by his then-teammate, Emerson Fittipaldi, with 16 laps to go.

Fittipaldi crashed in the fourth turn wall and had to make another pit stop while Unser had already made his final pit stop. But with Fittipaldi out of contention, Unser easily went on to win the race.

Patrick will need a good portion of luck to go along with her determined driving ability and a fast race car.

With veteran Tony Kanaan, young Marco Andretti and Japanese star Hideki Mutoh as teammates; Patrick has plenty of completion on her own team at Andretti Green Racing.

Just holding off her teammates will put her in a good spot to win.

"Everybody wants to win," Patrick said. "That's the problem. At Indy, there are 33 of us, and the rest of the season there are 20-odd drivers that want to win. Every year is challenging, but I think you still have a lot of the leaders at the front of the field as you did four years ago. It's always been pretty tough. Yeah, there are a lot more drivers, and I think there are going to be more knocking on that door."

And this just might be the year that Patrick is able to get through the door to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis 500.

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