A Motegi win may be what Danica needs to forget about subpar year

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MOTEGI, Japan -- Danica Patrick is hoping that a little "Motegi Magic" will wipe away a season's worth of IndyCar frustration.

Patrick has returned to the scene of her only victory and the site of some other memorable moments in her IndyCar career. As a rookie in 2005, she nearly won the pole before Sam Hornish Jr. knocked her off as the fastest qualifier late in the session. She made racing history here in 2008 as the first female driver ever to win a race in a major, closed-course racing series. Last year, she signed her contract to remain with Andretti Autosport in the IndyCar Series in the garage's engineering office.

Patrick was back in that same office Friday morning in an exclusive interview with SI.com to discuss a season of disappointment and how a victory in Sunday's Indy Japan 300 could wipe away all that disappointment.

"In 2008, it wasn't exactly my best year either, but I remember it for winning my first race," Patrick said. "To win here would make me forget about a lot of stuff this year, surely. Sometimes tough seasons are where you learn the most, too."

Her most bitter lesson came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, when she blamed her poor qualification effort on her crew for not giving her a fast race car. When the fans heard that comment in an interview aired over the Speedway public address system, she was booed by the crowd. Eight days later, during pre-race introductions for the 94th Indianapolis 500, Patrick was loudly booed by many of the 300,000 fans in attendance.

"Nobody likes to be booed," Patrick said. "It doesn't make me feel good at all. I can definitely understand what they were thinking and why they were doing that. All I really felt was that I needed to get back their trust and try to win them back over. I let my emotions get the best of me. I definitely didn't need to say what I did."

Getting booed at Indy may have been the best thing ever to happen to Patrick. It shook her confidence level to the point where she forced herself to refocus on getting back to the front of the field. One week after the Indy 500, she had the best complete race of her IndyCar career with a second-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

"Sometimes those kinds of things fuel you and make you work harder," Patrick said. "We made our decisions that weekend and it worked well for us. It's nice to have that happen after a dicey weekend."

Tom Anderson remembers how the boos at Indy affected Patrick. He's the senior vice president of racing operation at Andretti Autosport and began the season as Patrick's race strategist (he's since been replaced by Paul "Ziggy" Harcus.)

"I think that surprised her," Anderson said of the boos. "That surprised everybody. I don't think I've ever seen a driver put their foot in their mouth quicker in my life, because she was the media darling up until that point. It just shows you how fragile perception is from the public."

While Patrick's runner-up finish at Texas gave her promise to turn her season around, it would quickly falter into what some have described as the worst IndyCar season of her career. And with just two races left in the campaign, Patrick can't explain why a season of promise has turned into one of unfulfilled expectations.

"Bluntly, if I knew the exact reason, we'd be able to fix it," Patrick said. "Sometimes, you have those years. The good finishes have been overshadowed by a lot of mediocre races."

Is this really Patrick's worst season? Statistically, yes.

During her rookie season in 2005, she finished 12th in the final standings but had two top-5s, seven top-10s and three pole positions to tie Tomas Scheckter's rookie record for pole positions in a season. She was ninth in the standings in 2006 with two top-5s and eight top-10s. In 2007 she finished seventh in the standings with four top-5s and 11 top-10s, including a second-place at Detroit.

The following year Patrick finished sixth overall with one victory, three top-5s and 10 top-10s. Last year was her best finish in IndyCar as she took fifth with five top-5s and 10 top-10s.

That raised the level of expectations entering the 2010 season, but so far it's been a dud with just one top-5 and six top-10s. That adds up to a disappointing 11th in the IndyCar point standings.

"I think this year has been full of lots of good things but bad results," Patrick said. "It's possible to do the right thing and be good and make progress and have things happen in the race, but for some reason don't get the result. Last year I was blessed with a lot of luck. We did a good job but we seemed to hit the strategy more than not and I passed a hell of a lot more cars this year than last year but you have not seen that in results. We have not caught the breaks like we did last year, but we've had good things happen. It just shows how hard it is and how good the drivers are."

It's obvious Patrick is a much better driver six years into her career than she was as a rookie. That's why it's more accurate to call this the "most disappointing" season in her career rather than her "worst."

"I think after last year you come away with high expectations," Patrick said. "You come away with a top-5 in the championship with a lot of good drivers. You want to come into the next year and hit this and go for a championship and win some races and improve from last year.

"Clearly, that has not really been happening. Expectations really mess with your head a little bit. Even on individual weekends where you get ramped up and you think things are going great and you think you are going to win, and then you go out and have a disappointment, so it is double disappointment.

"We have also taken some risks this year that we didn't take in the past, whether it was downforce or setup. We've taken a few more risks because we are not going for fourth place. We want to win the race, so we take a few more risks and sometimes it doesn't pay off."

This year, Patrick has also run a limited NASCAR Nationwide Series season for JR Motorsports, but has struggled to adapt to stock car racing. Her next Nationwide Series race is next weekend at Dover, and to help her prepare for that, she has entered the K&N Pro Series race on Friday at Dover Downs.

"There is definitely a lot of concern about going to Dover for the first time, so I wanted to do everything we could to be prepared," Patrick said. "It will be good track time for me."

Danica's detractors have blamed her poor season on competing in both IndyCar and NASCAR. Team owner Michael Andretti believes if she focused strictly on IndyCar, her performance would dramatically improve. Patrick, however, is preparing for what may be the next step in her racing career if she decides to make a full-time move to NASCAR in 2012.

Regardless of her possible NASCAR plans, she has plenty of valuable lessons that she will take from this year's poor season.

"It tests your character, your patience, your confidence -- it's been hard," Patrick admitted "But I'm sure I'm going to come out stronger. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I truly believe that. Maybe it's all waiting for something nice and good to happen at the end of the year. This has been one of the toughest seasons I've ever had in my career. But there have been high points with my best road course [performance] and best oval race of my career with Toronto and Texas. It gets diluted by the fact that the general season has been a struggle.

"It is getting harder all the time, so the frustrations get more and more. Gone are the days of 18-car fields where a bad day puts you eighth. You almost have to almost re-establish your expectation levels to the surroundings and number of cars, the number of good cars and the fact the Champ Car teams have been around for a few years now. The expectation levels really mess with you."

While the long, grueling trip to Japan takes its toll on the drivers and crew members who make the journey every year, Patrick looks forward to this trip because of all the great moments she has enjoyed.

"I've always enjoyed coming to Japan -- everything about it," Patrick said. "I can remember the first years coming here with multiple manufacturers and coming in early and doing things for Honda and being in Tokyo for a few days before and then have some time after. I liked this place from the first time I came here. I have enjoyed everything about it and had a lot of success here. It's a special place for a lot of different reasons -- not just the win."

While Japanese drivers Takuma Sato and Hideki Mutoh are national heroes in this country, Patrick is easily the most popular non-Japanese driver at this track. She is swarmed by throngs of spectators and leaves Japan with a large collection of gifts given to her by the fans.

But her favorite thing she's taken from Japan: Her trophy for winning this race in 2008.

"I feel very lucky. When I walk outside I'm reminded how many great fans I have here. I did an appearance at lunch in the cafeteria and there was a very big fan of mine that held up a flag of me for 40 minutes straight and shook it and danced. The fans here are always very happy and positive and give me a good experience here. For this weekend, I hope to win again. It's been a tough year and would be a very nice thing for that to happen. It would be another great memory of Japan."

Her next great memory from Japan could be the one thing she needs the most to forget about the disappointment that has come with this season.