Down in Texas they were billing it as a fight – "The Rumble at the Speedway" – big banners and advertisements everywhere and really, as long as Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon didn't bang into each other at 200 miles per hour plus and kill each other (or someone else), wasn't this just what IndyCar needed?
"Dan 'The Battlin' Brit' Wheldon and Danica 'The Phoenix Firebird' Patrick fought to a draw at The Milwaukee Mile on Sunday and a rematch already has been scheduled for the unofficial IndyCar Series featherweight championship belt."
That's what the good folks at Texas Motor Speedway were using to hype up Saturday's race, going back to the old staple of feuds and potential mayhem to sell tickets. This one was perfect, maybe even better than what you get with NASCAR because, in case anyone could forget, Danica Patrick is a woman. A pin-up model, no less.
Which begs a question: Why in the heck did IndyCar officials work to settle the budding feud Thursday?
"We're cool," Patrick told the Indianapolis Star Thursday after a mandated sit-down with Wheldon and IRL officials. "I like Dan; I always have. I don't want things to be weird between us."
Cool? Not weird?
This is the last thing IndyCar, which is desperate to get out of the considerable shadow of NASCAR, needed. Forget cool and nice. Try hot and mean, try the chance that these two might actually fight – on track or off.
"5-foot-2, 100 pounds" the track P.R. department said of Patrick on its "Tale of the Tape" promo. Wheldon went off at "5-foot-9, 157 pounds."
This all started last week when Wheldon cut Patrick off as she tried to pass. Patrick thought she had earned the right of way. Wheldon saw nothing wrong with his move. They both have a point but what followed was proof that hell hath no fury like a woman driver scorned.
Patrick may be petite, but she is intense and has absolutely no fear of confrontation. That's her personality and that's one reason she has reached the heights she has achieved in her career. (Yes, we know she has yet to win an IndyCar race, but she is still a significant competitor in a major racing league.)
So post race she cornered Wheldon, hollered at him and even grabbed his arm. He walked away from what he called "an awkward situation." Afterwards, both threw out more anger.
"I told him, 'You know, if you don't think that I'm going to remember this, you're crazy,' " Patrick said.
"She's messing with the wrong person if she wants to get feisty," Wheldon said. "I'm a lot tougher than she is on track."
A man claiming he is tougher than a woman is fairly embarrassing (for him), but then he really hit below the belt (so to speak).
"There's a lot of pressure on her because she has not won a race."
Ouch. Of course, Wheldon has won 13 races and the 2005 IndyCar title. Later in the week, Wheldon was anything but apologetic on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption."
So this was shaping up well; after all, how often does IndyCar even get on PTI? The Texas Motor Speedway folks began hoping they could fill their immense grandstand outside Fort Worth.
Who knew how the fans would react. Would Patrick get booed for being so aggressive? Or was Wheldon going to get ridiculed for being silly enough to get into a near fight with a woman? Or maybe this would break along gender lines?
At a fundraiser Wednesday in Texas, another driver, Tony Kanaan, wore a referee's jersey as he sat between the two.
Then, just when this was getting good, just when race fans were actually talking IndyCar and not NASCAR, officials got everyone together to smooth things out.
Yes, this is not the WWE and at high speeds bad things can happen. And yes, NASCAR slaps some wrists too (Kurt Busch was just fined points and money and put on probation for his latest flare-up).
But there always seems to be a wink that comes along with that discipline.
One thing that has made NASCAR so popular, driving it right past open wheel racing in this country, is the personalities, the battles, the controversies, the paint trading. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was unapologetically known as "The Intimidator." The circuit's unofficial motto has long been "if you ain't rubbing, you ain't racing."
So now we have to wonder whether IndyCar missed its big chance. Patrick bumping Wheldon in, say, the relative safety of pit road, would have sprung this struggling sport to new heights, drawn even more attention.
The two of them just driving around in circles? That hasn't been enough for open wheel racing in a long time.
But with a chance to steal a page from NASCAR's playbook – with a woman involved, no less – IndyCar backed down.
We'll see what happens Saturday. But if it's nothing, IndyCar may regret it forever.
- Danica Patrick
- Dan Wheldon
- Texas Motor Speedway