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Danica Patrick pulls out all the stops for strong Texas finish

Patrick fell just short of winning her second IndyCar contest but it was obvious that this was the best complete race of her career.

She didn't get to the front by using fuel strategy or by having the race fall into her lap; she raced her way to the front through sheer speed and determination.

And just one week after she was booed in pre-race introductions at the 94th Indianapolis 500, Patrick could finally talk about some good news after finishing second to race winner Ryan Briscoe.

"It was probably my best, cleanest race," Patrick said. "I've had races where there have been sort of awesome things that have happened. It gets overlooked because you're not in the lead. But tonight was probably my best race as far as top to bottom, not making any mistakes, being good in the pits, being good in and out of the pits, being good on the track."

It was just a few weeks ago that Patrick had the worst qualification performance of her Indy 500 career when she was 23rd out of 24 cars that qualified on Pole Day. Afterwards, she blamed it on the crew saying, "the car was not good." That led to boos from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crowd that obviously stung her.

But getting booed at her favorite race of the year, however, only spurred her into action.

Team owner Michael Andretti made a change by replacing Tom Anderson as her race strategist with Paul "Ziggy" Harcus, beginning with the Indy 500. Anderson was freed of the responsibility of calling Patrick's race strategy and can now focus on the entire four-car team at Andretti Autosport.

Harcus is an old veteran of IndyCar racing and the combination appears to have had a dramatic impact. They used race strategy and pit stops to get Patrick to sixth place at the Indy 500.

At Texas on Saturday night, they gave Patrick a fast race car and that allowed the "Determined Diva" to show that, in her heart, she is indeed a true racer.

"I don't know if I want to necessarily say that it was Ziggy that made the difference and Tom didn't do a good job. I don't think that's the case," she said. "I think that it's kind of been not only putting someone in the position to be on the radio with me that I get along with and understand and gives me the exact information I'm looking for, but everything else that we've been working on is falling into line, too.

Patrick proved to be fast and fearless, living up to her reputation as one of the most competitive female drivers the IndyCar Series has ever seen. That is a refreshing change because this season Patrick has been given far too much attention for everything except a good result on the race track. From a forgettable debut in NASCAR to a sluggish IndyCar season, Patrick has searched for recognition of what has worked in her favor.

"Sometimes the little victories that I have throughout the season are not necessarily obvious on the track," she said. "Maybe they are another aspect of what I'm doing, winning little victories here and there to get everything in line to be able to perform from top to bottom on race day. I've been working hard all season. I think that it's just really nice to have a result to show for how hard I've been working and how hard all the team has been working, as well."

Her performance on Saturday night was her way of silencing critics.

She rode into Texas and stole the show away from the winner, Ryan Briscoe. The two battled it out in the late stages of the contest in a wheel-to-wheel fight. She nudged ahead to take the lead on lap 192 -- her first lap led this season. Briscoe fought back and regained the lead on the following lap, driving to his first victory of the season and denying the fan favorite of her second IndyCar Series win.

"I'm surprised I didn't have anything thrown at me," Briscoe said afterwards. "I knew she had a very good car. She must have had a good pit stop as well. She got me in Turns 3 and 4 as I was pulling out of the pits. I used the push-to-pass button coming out of Turn 4. That was key. If I didn't get her there; I wasn't going to get her at all."

It was a "Texas-sized" storyline that could grow if Patrick is successful in building on it throughout the season.

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"I think that my engineer and I, we really thought about what it was going to take here to run well," Patrick said. "Sometimes it takes looking at the past to really be able to move forward and learn from it. I really looked at last year, looked at what it was that I didn't do right. I don't want to overlook the fact that he did a really great job with the car, too. We made some really good improvements with the car in the first one or two changes. I think that really sort of set up our whole weekend.

"We had a great car in the race. No matter how good you are, how brave you are or anything, it comes down to that car so many times. Not every time, but so many times. It was a good car tonight. The stops were good."

Credit to the crew -- a valuable lesson learned after Indianapolis 500 qualifying.

And with a positive spin from her last two races, Patrick is ready to return to "NASCAR duty" on June 26 in the Nationwide Series race at New Hampshire International Speedway. Soon after she will begin double duty in both NASCAR and IndyCar.

"I'm a little concerned. I think it's tough for her to do, and I think it's tough for anybody to do that," said IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti. "I think to be good in any one of these series any more, you have to be in it 24/7. From that standpoint, I think it's probably not as healthy for her. But we support her. This is what she wanted to do, so we're supporting it."

By racing her way to the front at Texas, Patrick has regained a large degree of confidence which can only help her when she makes her return to NASCAR. She also runs well at Iowa and could be on a tremendous resurgence when she climbs back into a stock car.

But after watching her race -- the manner in which she raced on Saturday night -- one thing is evident:

Finally, "Danica Mania" is back to living up to the hype.

By dominating Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway, Denny Hamlin scored a series-high fourth win this season and continues to prove that he is a legitimate threat for the 2010 championship.

It was also Hamlin's fourth win at the quirky, triangle-shaped race course located in Eastern Pennsylvania.

In less than two months, Hamlin has charged from outside the top 12 to third place in the Sprint Cup standings after his victory Sunday.

"I feel like we're one of four or five guys that really are legitimate, week in, week out, up� front guys," Hamlin said. "That's a good feeling right now. But it's very tough to stay on top of any sport for an entire year. Our sport is a rollercoaster. It goes up and down. It has waves. Your performance always comes in waves.

"But I'm definitely very confident in what we have planned for the Chase, the cars we have planned for the Chase. Right now we are being conservative, believe it or not, in our attempt for this season. Hopefully we peak at the right time. I mean, anyone would say, Yeah, you're peaking now.

"Really I feel like the best is yet to come."

"I don't know what his problem is with me but it's probably not his fault. His wife wears the fire suit in the family and tells him what to do. It's probably not his fault." -- Joey Logano, referring to Kevin Harvick and his wife, Delana, after the two drivers had their latest run-in at the end of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono Sunday.

"Jogging in Phoenix, any part of the day is the heat of the day. Even when it is morning it is 80-90 degrees." -- Danica Patrick, an avid jogger who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. comparing where she lives to the 105 degree temperatures at Texas Motor Speedway over the weekend.

Darlington Raceway may have Mother's Day but Michigan International Speedway has been NASCAR's home to "Father's Day" since it began hosting Cup races in the late 1960s. And if dad is a "Gear Head" what better way to celebrate than firing up the grill and tailgating at one of the largest camping areas of any race track on the NASCAR schedule?