Danica Patrick takes her first shot at qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 today, and she just might end up on the pole.
Patrick, the only woman entered in the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, has been driving as fast as any of the drivers this week, hitting speeds just under 366kph (228mph) on the 4km oval. All Patrick is trying to do now, is stay focused and become the fourth female to qualify for the race.
"This is the fastest I've ever gone," Patrick said on Friday. "I think some of the top speeds have been around 235 or 234 mph [378kph or 376kph]."
With every lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Patrick has been learning what it takes to handle a car at such high speeds.
"Your hand movements have to be really, really slow and small," she said. "I experienced a little bit of that at 200, 210, 212 [mph]. Another 15 miles an hour or so is making a bit of a difference."
Patrick will try to put her newfound education to good use on the first of four days of Indy time trials, battling with veterans like reigning Indy Racing League champion Tony Kanaan of Brazil, current points leader Dan Wheldon of England, Scotland's Dario Franchitti, Scott Sharp, Japan's Kosuke Matsuura, South Africa's Tomas Scheckter and two-time winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil for the US$100,000 pole.
All of them have been above 225mph (362kph) during the week, with Patrick's 227.633mph (366.261kph) on Thursday second only to a 227.804mph (366.536kph) posted on Friday by Scheckter before heavy rain cut short the final full day of practice before qualifying.
The Rahal Letterman Racing team suffered a blow when Buddy Rice, the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, was knocked out of at least the first two days of qualifying with a concussion and back injury from hitting the wall on Wednesday. That left Patrick and third team driver Vitor Meira of Brazil, a two-time Indy starter, to try to qualify up front.
"I don't think Buddy's injury inhibits our chances for this weekend in terms of vying for the pole," said team co-owner Bobby Rahal. "I think both Vitor and Danica have realistic chances at it, assuming everything goes smoothly."
Besides the pressure on Patrick, there will also be a whole new set of problems for her and all the other drivers entered, thanks to the new qualifying procedure.
Only 11 drivers will earn positions in the tentative lineup in each of the first three days of qualifying -- Saturday, Sunday and May 21. Any remaining drivers will then have the opportunity to bump the slowest qualifiers from the 33-car field on May 22, the final day of time trials.
Rookie Paul Dana was seriously injured and two-time Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr. was able to walk away from a crash during Friday's practice for the Indianapolis 500.
Dana lost control heading into turn two on the 4km oval and backed hard into the outside wall. Hornish ran over debris from Dana's wreck, flipped high into the air, turned over, and skidded along the track on the open cockpit of his Team Penske entry.
Hornish was able to scramble from his overturned car and came away with only a cut and a bruise on his right knee. Safety workers removed Dana from his battered car and speedway officials said he was taken by ambulance to Methodist Hospital, where he was awake, alert, and in good condition with a spinal fracture and a concussion.