MOTEGI, Japan -- Danica Patrick is back at the site of her first and only major racing victory, being treated like a rock star by fans in Japan and sitting sixth in the starting grid for the next to last race of the IndyCar season.
At least 3,500 spectators lined up for Friday's autograph session that featured every driver in the 23-car starting lineup, and many of those were lined up to get Patrick's autograph. The only IndyCar drivers who come close in popularity here are the three from Japan -- Hideki Mutoh, Kosuke Matsuura and Roger Yasukawa.
This race has always been run in the cold, wet month of April, but the series got Honda to switch the date to September to accommodate the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which was added following unification with the former Champ Car Series in 2008. Both races were held on the same April weekend last year, when it was too late to get the date changed for the Motegi event. The switch to September has meant one pleasant change -- the weather is much dryer and hotter than in past trips.
While Patrick gained tremendous attention from her victory here in '08, making her the first female driver to win in a major closed-course racing series, there are some who claim it was a fuel mileage victory and that she didn't win in a race to the finish.
"Obviously, I think that's unfair because in any race you go to you have to be running well to win the race," Patrick said on Thursday. "You don't have to have the best car to win a race even with a pass for a win. There have been a lot of people who have won races on strategy. I've put myself in position at times to win it on strategy and I've lost it on strategy. Strategy is a huge part of it. Everyone wants their win to be some dramatic pass for the lead or lapping second place, but not every race comes like that."
Patrick had a four-lap average of 200.519 miles per hour on Friday at the 1 1/2-mile oval, putting her behind polesitter Scott Dixon, who's on the front row with Mario Morae of Brazil. Points leader Ryan Briscoe is on the second row with Dario Franchitti. Briscoe can clinch the season title if he finishes first or second and Dixon and Franchitti finish way back in the pack. He leads Franchitti by 25 points and Dixon by 32.
Patrick is fifth in the standings and would love to close out the season on a strong note. It's expected that she'll announce her new contract at season's end, one that will keep her with Andretti Green Racing and allow her to drive in a limited number of lower division NASCAR races around her IndyCar Series schedule. By doing so, it'll give her the opportunity to get a taste of NASCAR while continuing as the darling of the IndyCar Series. If she discovers NASCAR is not what she does best, then she would save herself from making the next step. If she finds out that she likes it, then it will be something to seriously consider, but only after her next IndyCar Series contract with Andretti concludes.
And then the rumor mill can start all over again.