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Danica Patrick gone from Indianapolis as impact remains

Patrick moved to NASCAR this season, leaving the Indianapolis 500 without her for the first time since 2005

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. - The sign, nearly as long as a semi-trailer, was direct. In one word, it told the ubiquitous story present for every Indianapolis 500 dating to 2005.

DANICA.

All capital letters, block style and using a simple black and white color scheme.

Strung above a souvenir hauler parked in the center of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's grounds, in plain view of any person walking south on the infield's main access road, it advertised the one stop Danica Patrick shop. The mobile rig featured merchandise with the likeness of the only female competitor of the storied Greatest Spectacle in Racing to appear in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.

But this year it's gone, as are many of the Patrick T-shirts and No. 7 hats that popped up on spectators in recent years. Danica Patrick won't be competing in the 96th Indianapolis 500 (Sunday, 12 p.m. ET) after moving to NASCAR full-time in the offseason. She'll race 600 miles away Sunday night in NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600.

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Danica Patrick is the only woman to ever lead a lap in the Indianapolis 500.

In her wake, she leaves a solid Indianapolis record and plenty of conversation about how one of racing's most enigmatic stars changed IndyCar - for the better, or for the worse. Patrick has long been the most and possibly only known face of the struggling series.

"Danica did great things for the series, but I think oftentimes at the expense of the series," said Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and current IndyCar team owner. "It was a yin and a yang. The other drivers that were here didn't get the attention they should have gotten. Now we get back to what it's all about, which is great racing."

Rahal, who co-owned the first car Patrick drove in the venerable 500, was cautious in how he put his words last week. "I'm not sure how this is all going to get written," he said.

It was a common stance when discussing the most-discussed driver in the 16-year sanctioning IndyCar sanctioning body history.

Dario Franchitti, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time series champion, artfully evaded questions about the departure of Patrick, his teammate for three years.

"There's been no impact," said Franchitti. "It's not affecting me on or off the track, no."

But IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard felt different about Patrick's impact on Franchitti - thesport's most accomplished driver in the last decade.

"I did think she was an umbrella that took the spotlight off of drivers like Dario," Bernard said. "He's going to finish his career right there with Mario (Andretti), Michael (Andretti), Bobby (Unser), Al (Unser) and Rick Mears. We have this great legend that doesn't resonate with fans to the amount of his credibility."

That's not to say Bernard wasn't a bit uneasy to start the season without Patrick, the first woman to lead at Indianapolis.

"At the beginning of the season, you scratch your head and think 'Geez, I hope everything we've been saying (about Patrick's departure) is going to be true," said Bernard. "But we've seen double-digit growth on all of the races so far, so I think that's a real big positive."

IndyCar avoided a substantial loss from Patrick's departure when sponsor GoDaddy opted to stay in the sport as a primary sponsor at Andretti Autosport and as a series sponsor. Bernard thinks retaining the web domain company known for it's racy television with Patrick may be more important.

"Let's be honest, Danica did a great job here, but GoDaddy had such an important role in developing her stardom," said Bernard.

Prior to his death in the final race of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season at Las Vegas, last year's Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was scheduled to fill Patrick's seat. Instead, Canadian James Hinchcliffe has aptly taken the reigns of Sunday's most visible entrant - a lime green No. 27. As if on cue, the affable Hinchcliffe will start second in Sunday's race.

"Obviously jumping into this ride, you're following a very big act, probably the biggest act in IndyCar," Hinchcliffe said. "I think it was important to try and make it our own a little bit."

Hinchcliffe certainly can't be faulted for trying. He's amassed an impressive social media and personal web site following after anointing himself the mayor of fictional Hinchtown on his personal site.

"(GoDaddy has been) supportive of the wacky personality that I can be sometimes and they don't try to hold me back, which is great," Hinchcliffe said. "It's something that I think some of the fans have been able to relate to and attract some attention."

He did just that in the season's first race in St. Petersburg, Fla., when he wore a wig and assumed the nickname "Manica."

"From my point of view, it's cool now," said Hinchcliffe. "I get a lot less people yelling out 'Danica' like I did in St. Pete and a lot more people calling out 'Hinch', which is cool."

Current IndyCar team co-owner and former driver Sarah Fisher was the leader of the current wave of women in IndyCar when she made her first start in the Indianapolis 500 as a 19-year-old in 2000. Fisher thinks Patrick was part of a movement that has changed the culture of racing opportunities for women. Sunday's race, which will feature three women in the starting field, marks the 35th anniversary of Janet Guthrie becoming the first woman to start the Indianapolis 500.

"I think it started a trend of younger girls getting interested in racing," Fisher said. "I think that's a talent pool we're starting to see get an opportunity now in these cars. It takes some time."

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James Hinchcliffe has taken over Danica Patrick's ride in IndyCar. (Reuters)

For Patrick, though, the time was right to head to NASCAR. Following her only IndyCar win in a 2008 race in Japan - a first for any female in major auto racing - Patrick didn't find victory lane again and occasionally struggled in her next 65 starts. She's now racing full-time NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series and part-time in the top Sprint Cup Series.

"I was ready to leave IndyCar. I wanted to be here," Patrick said Thursday in Charlotte. "When you are not missing something, longing for something, you don't really think about it that much. It's like that girlfriend you didn't want to have anymore. You don't think about her anymore."

But that didn't keep Patrick from checking the television last weekend while the Nationwide Series raced at Iowa Speedway. Qualifying for the race that made her a brand name in American sports culture was on.

"I was thinking about Indy and I was thinking about how I would be doing if I was there. I can imagine every thought that is going through all those drivers' heads," Patrick said. "I can imagine all those thoughts. I didn't feel like I wanted to be there."

Patrick's most recent memory of Indianapolis may well be her attempt to qualify for the field last year. A combination of an ill-handling race car, a team error in the qualifying line and heavy rain shower briefly left her unqualified for the race. The rain eventually cleared and the track dried before the scheduled end of the final qualifying session, giving Patrick and others the opportunity to make the show.

She qualified and finished 10th, her sixth Indianapolis Top-10 in seven tries.

"I have lots of great memories from there and probably the part of me that doesn't feel quite as longing for it is that there is still a chance that I could do it again," Patrick said. "It's not gone."

For this year, though, Indianapolis for Danica is gone. Just like the souvenir hauler and the heavy Danica-specific marketing.

"If she was here, at the end of the day would she affect the show? Probably not," said Rahal. "The race was here for 80 or 90 years before Danica showed up."