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Danica Patrick's preference for ovals might shape her future

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Danica Patrick is in her sixth season of IndyCar racing, and it's in those 83 races, such as the Indianapolis 500, that she has made a name for herself and developed a legion of fans. But after dabbling in stock-car racing with four unremarkable races this spring, three in NASCAR's Nationwide series, the 28-year-old is facing new questions as to what direction her future in racing might go. After a Friday practice for Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where she seeks her fourth top 10 showing in six years, Patrick was asked if the growing number of street and road races like this weekend's could affect her decision of where she'll continue to develop as a driver.

"I've never beat around the bush about this one," she said. "I don't think it's the greatest place for us to display excitement for the fans. … I just think we aren't as exciting as we could be on the road courses."

Patrick said the lack of competition from different manufacturers has made the IndyCars too similar, making it difficult to pass in the tight constraints of a street course.

"People like to talk about the glory days of (open-wheel racing) when there was a whole bunch of street courses and road courses, and there was also the days of multiple manufacturers all over the place," she said. "There was some separation between people. Now, you just don't have that. It's all the same. It's very difficult to be faster than someone else."

Two weeks ago in the IRL's season opener in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where Patrick took 15th, she said she was pleasantly surprised by the street course's layout, which allowed for more passing opportunities, like the long stretch on the runways at Albert Whitted Airport in Sunday's race.

"The track (in Brazil) was set up for overtaking, which was a big relief," Patrick said. "I passed a few people out there. I came into the pits after a practice session and said, 'I legitimately passed them. I actually passed them.' That doesn't barely even happen in the races sometimes. It was nice."

Stock-car racing is new to Patrick, who didn't finish higher than 31st in her three Nationwide races; two ended in accidents and in the third she was three laps off the lead. She'll return to stock cars in June, hoping to avoid some unlucky breaks and build off her first month on the circuit.

"Everything's very unfamiliar and new, and there's so much to learn," she said of her NASCAR experience. "I probably felt more uncomfortable over there, but it's 'cause it's new. Another race, another challenge."

The transition from open-wheel to stock cars isn't always easy, as defending IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti can attest. Others such as Tony Stewart have made seamless moves between the two, but ESPN broadcaster Scott Goodyear, who raced in the IRL and CART series, remembers giving the IROC series a try at Daytona, with little success.

"It's like somebody put you on an airplane and dropped you off in another country where you don't even know the language. It's completely different," he said.

Could Patrick be competitive in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series? She certainly seems interested in finding out, with a commitment to run in 12 Nationwide races as part of a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Her popularity — with fans and sponsors — could get an even bigger boost with NASCAR, but on Friday, her thoughts were more with helping the IRL maximize its fan base.

Patrick said she's thinking not of herself but of the league's future when she talks about more oval racing for IndyCar, which was founded as an all-oval series.

"At the end of the day if people stop watching us, then no sponsors are going to go on the cars, and there'll be no cars to go around the track," she said.

Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com and at (813) 226-3346.

Danica Patrick's preference for ovals might shape her future 03/26/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 27, 2010 12:43am]

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