Danica Patrick's first IndyCar win in the Japan 300 was more a triumph in public relations than auto racing.
It didn't happen as the result of a final lap, wheel-to-wheel battle, one that many close observers of the sport feel she will never win.
It instead was more a battle between the race engineer's computers on the Andretti Green team and that of her rival Helio Castroneves' Penske Racing team. It was a matter of who would get the best fuel mileage in the final handful of laps of the 200-lap race.
Both drivers had made their final pit stop on Lap 148, and when race leader Scott Dixon was forced onto pit road for a final splash of fuel, it became an opportunity for both Patrick and Castroneves to win – in a fuel mileage battle.
Castroneves is the IRL points leader and was racing with that in mind. Instead of gambling on running out of fuel or making a pit stop which would have had him finishing farther back in the field and scoring fewer points, Castroneves instead lifted his foot off of his gas pedal just enough to save fuel and reward Patrick with the victory.
The win was the result of a well-calculated move – pure and simple.
However, to her and her team's credit, a win is a win no matter how you get it. And Patrick did execute the team's strategy perfectly.
In a moment of postrace enthusiasm, team owner Michael Andretti, himself a winner in several fuel mileage battles over his illustrious career, referred to Patrick's win as being the first of many.
Perhaps. Or maybe it will prove to be nothing more than an anomaly.
Patrick's win came against a shrunken field of competitors, one which was devoid of the last two series champions (who both left the open wheel series to race in NASCAR), not to mention lacking any of the Champ Car drivers, who were in Long Beach, Calif., competing in Sunday's finale for that series before the two – IRL and Champ Car – unite for good.
Only 18 cars took the green flag in Japan – six to eight fewer than will be competing when the two series are reunited at Kansas Speedway next weekend – and just seven were running on the lead lap at the checkered flag.
Despite her having only won in go-karts and not while driving in a professional auto race, Patrick has been able to command a legion of fans, perhaps for no reason other than she is a woman participating in what most regard as a man's sport.
And after tiring of fending off questions about when she would win, she distracted her detractors by posing in swimsuits and making suggestive ads for her sponsors.
Patrick's victory may temporarily quiet her critics, and likely will help draw much-needed attention to a sport that at one time in its history was more popular than NASCAR and didn't have to rely on a pretty face to garner headlines or cash in on the notoriety of a driver who is known more for winning a dancing contest on television than his two Indy 500 wins (see Helio Castroneves).
To her credit, Patrick remains a model for young women everywhere. It may be a model of how persistence, a pretty face and the willingness to take the heat can pay off in the end.
Her skills and courage behind the wheel of an Indy car is not in question. It takes considerable amounts of both to enter Turn 1 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with your foot to the floor.
And cast no doubts about it. Her victory is the first ever by a woman in Indy cars.
But not the first in auto racing.
Women have been winning at the highest levels of professional auto racing for years.
Drag racers Shirley Muldowney, who is now retired, and more recently Melanie Troxel have shown that women can compete and win in what is presumed to be a man's game – driving race cars capable of speeds well over 300 miles per hour.
For now, Patrick's lone victory is more a marketing executive's dream. She can now be identified in her product endorsements as IndyCar "race winner" Danica Patrick instead of just Indy car driver.
In some ways, the pressure is off. Now Patrick can focus on scoring a more "traditional" victory and establishing herself as one of the series' top drivers.
And if Andretti is correct, and this is her first of many victories, then her impact on the sport could be historic – especially if she can duplicate it in the Indy 500, when actual open eyes will be watching, not just the bloodshot ones that witnessed her graveyard hour win in Japan.
Until then, this win leaves itself subject to scrutiny.
(Editor's note: This article has been altered since it was first published to add in text that was inadvertently omitted.)
- Danica Patrick
- Helio Castroneves