INDIANAPOLIS - 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 for this year's race on May 29, has been driving as fast as any of the drivers this week, hitting speeds just under 228 mph on the 2-mile 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 Friday. "I think some of the top speeds have been around 235 or 234."
With every lap around 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. 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 time trials, battling with veterans like reigning Indy Racing League champion Tony Kanaan, current points leader Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti, Scott Sharp, Kosuke Matsuura, Tomas Scheckter and two-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves for the $100,000 pole.
All of them have been above 225 during the week, with Patrick's 227.633 on Thursday second only to a 227.804 posted 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 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, 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," team co-owner Bobby Rahal said. "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 each of the first three days of qualifying - today, 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.
In previous years, the number of cars that could qualify each day was unlimited and, once a car completed a four-lap, 10-mile qualifying attempt, it was locked in. If that speed was later withdrawn, the team's only option was to qualify another car.
The changes were made because interest in qualifying at Indy has waned in recent years, with small crowds and little hype, even for pole qualifying.