Car, attitude need adjustment

INDIANAPOLIS — They were boos heard 'round the world, a stinging rebuke aimed at Danica Patrick at the same spot that five years earlier was the stage for making her among the most recognized women in sports.

Moments after a dreary qualifying run for Sunday's Indianapolis 500, the driver was speaking on the public address system at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when she blamed the problem on an "absolutely awful" race car and said "it's not my fault."

It was a flash point for many sitting in the grandstands. Her fans had made Patrick, 28, the most popular driver in the IndyCar Series, a role she skillfully finessed with sex-symbol marketing to become a singular household name a la Tiger and Kobe.

But there's always been a flip side to "Danicamania." She has won only once in 86 career races. So when she complained about her car last weekend after qualifying 23rd in the 33-car field for the Indy 500, for many fans it smacked of breaking the cardinal sin that drivers shouldn't badmouth their crews.

Thus a stunned Patrick was showered with boos. Media critics quickly followed, blasting her for "throwing her team under a bus," "whining" and "acting like a diva." Her teammate Tony Kanaan said "she definitely needs to change her attitude."

There's nothing new about drivers getting booed. It's a trademark of NASCAR's temperamental Kyle Busch, for instance. But for Patrick, the marquee attraction of the IndyCar series, it was novel.

"I've had boos over the years but not like this," Patrick said. "It doesn't make me feel good, no."

Patrick said she never meant to criticize her team, Andretti Autosport, and made that clear to each crew member afterward. But Sunday they'll still face the issue ofher frustration: her slow No. 7 race car. Patrick said they might have to gamble against the likes of pole-sitter Helio Castroneves and former Indy 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

One possibility: Making pit stops out of sequence with the leaders to gain track position.

"We're probably going to have to maybe, maybe stay out or maybe come in opposite the field," she said. "Passing 22 cars is going to be hard."

Even so, making some early passes will be part of her strategy, mainly to avoid going a lap down to the leaders.

"Getting past the first lap is going to be important, just making sure you don't get caught in any stupid stuff that happens when people are grabbing (for position) at the very beginning," she said. "Then I think it's going to be a matter of pedal to the metal for the first good chunk. I've got to get by some cars."

Yet she also has to be patient in the 200-lap race. "That's something that I've been told since the first year I came here, it's a long race," she said. "As long as you don't go a lap down anything can happen."

After posting a career-best fifth in the IndyCar points last year, Patrickhas struggled through the first five races this season, finishing in the top 10 only once. She's 16th in points.

She was expected to improve when she arrived in Indianapolis.Patrick typically has run well here ever since she rocketed to fame by nearly winning the Indy 500 as a rookie in 2005. She finished third last year. But Patrick and her teammates have been relatively slow this month and unable to figure out why.

"We mostly expected to do well here, so to not is a little bit shocking and disappointing," Patrick said.

The boos were shocking too.

Patrick's car was so ill-handling in her qualifying run it left her on edge and, as her team owner Michael Andretti put it, "her adrenaline was through the roof." Patrick then did her now infamous interview.

"I had literally 60 seconds once I got out of the car and had my helmet off to talk to someone and I was still really, really shaken up from the run and kind of had a quivering voice and shaky hands," she recalled.

"So (taking) a few more minutes (before the interview) would have probably done myself some justice. On the other hand, it's not like you've never seen me do something emotional before."

How she fares Sunday could determine if the boos continue. But in terms of staying relevant in motor racing and as a celebrity, Patrick said it depends on what she does in her race car.

"At the end of the day," she said earlier this month, "if I don't do well with track position, there will be nothing for you guys to talk about."

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