DANICA PATRICK: The Rahal/Letterman Era
Danica Patrick moved up to the IRL Indycar series in 2005 with the established Rahal/Letterman team, joining teammates Vitor Meira and 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice. It is often said that the greatest measure of a driver’s competitiveness is performance relative to the team’s other drivers; consequently, ARA examines each of Danica’s race performances relative to her teammates.
Danica’s IRL career began on the Homestead oval. At this point Patrick had contested only two oval races, both on the one-mile oval in Milwaukee. She qualified ninth but was part of a multi-car accident past the three-quarter mark of the event, crashing out after 158 laps and placing fifteenth. Vitor Meira started second and finished fourth. Danica then qualified eighteenth at Phoenix and finished fifteenth, six laps down. Rice beat her start (tenth) and Meira her finish (eleventh) but none of the Rahal/Letterman cars were competitive. The next event was the St. Petersburg street race; Danica qualified fifteenth and finished twelfth, five laps down. Meira started twelfth but finished fifth. After three steady but unremarkable outings, Danica’s star began to shine, in retrospect not surprisingly, on the Motegi oval in Japan. Danica qualified second, led the first eighteen laps, then led fourteen more (33-46) en route to a fourth-place, lead-lap finish. A fine performance for a rookie, especially one with her dearth of oval experience, the second-place start was the best for a woman in Indycar racing since Sara Fisher’s second-place start at Richmond in 2003 and the finish was the best for a woman since Sarah’s fourth-place finish at Nazareth in 2002.
Then came the 2005 Indianapolis 500. Patrick qualified fourth, ahead of both of her teammates and setting a new record for best Indy 500 start by a woman as she bettered Lyn St. James’ sixth-place 1994 start. Danica drove a steady, competitive, and strategic race, leading for the first time on lap 56, then again from laps 172 through 185, and finally from laps 190 through 193 (a total of nineteen laps led) before finishing fourth, on the lead lap. This finish was five positions better than Janet Guthrie’s ninth-place finish in the 1978 Indianapolis 500 as Danica set the new record for a woman in the 500. Danica became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and won the race’s Rookie of the Year honors. Her fourth place did not lead the Rahal/Letterman team, however, as Vitor Meira finished second.
Danica ran her top four qualifying streak to three races by qualifying third on the super quick Texas oval, outqualifying her teammates. She finished only thirteenth, however, but was on the lead lap. Meira led the team with a ninth-place finish. The Richmond short oval proved a challenge for Danica. She qualified only twenty-first and finished tenth, three laps down, but her finish led the team for the first time in her career! Rice led the team in qualifying by starting fourteenth.
Patrick bounced back on the Richmond oval, taking the first pole of her Indycar career, matching Sarah Fisher’s feat in 2002 at Kentucky! Danica did not lead during the race, however, and finished ninth, but on the lead lap. Meira led the team with a third-place finish. Patrick then qualified second on the Nashville oval, again leading the team, and finished seventh, on the lead lap, after leading nine laps (123-131). Her finish led the team. Milwaukee, the site of her two oval races in Toyota Atlantic competition, started well with a sixth-place qualifying as she led the Rahal/Letterman trio for the third consecutive race in qualifying and for the sixth time in ten races! Her race ended in an accident after 125 laps, however, and she placed nineteenth. Meira led the team with a ninth-place finish.
Danica qualified eighth on the high-speed Michigan oval but Rice led the team with a third-place start. Patrick suffered the first mechanically-caused retirement of her IRL career after 163 laps, placing twentieth. Meira led the team with a fourteenth-place finish. Kentucky saw Danica take another pole and set Fast Lap during the race before finishing sixteenth, sixteen laps down. Vitor Meira posted his second runnerup finish of 2005. At Pikes Peak Raceway, Patrick again led the team in qualifying, starting fifth, and finished eighth, two laps down. Meira led the team with a fifth-place finish. Danica then contested her first IRL race on a traditional road course, at Sears Point (Infineon) in California. She qualified only sixteenth and wrecked on the twentieth lap with Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Ganassi’s Ryan Briscoe. She placed twentieth. Buddy Rice led the team with a runnerup finish after starting sixth.
Patrick returned to team leadership on the Chicagoland oval, taking her third pole of the season, leading the first lap of the race, and finishing sixth, on the lead lap, as she led the Rahal/Letterman trio. The second road course of the season, Watkins Glen saw her qualify sixteenth (as she had at Sears Point); Meira led the team by starting seventh. Danica needed a tow-in on lap twenty-eight and finished sixteenth, two laps down, but the result led the team. The 2005 season concluded with the California Speedway 400. Danica led the team in qualifying fourth, led two laps (lap 89 and lap 125) but crashed out after 184 laps, placing eighteenth. Meira finished third.
Patrick concluded the 2005 IRL season ranked twelfth in points and won the 2005 IRL Rookie of the Year honors. Her teammates Vitor Meira and Buddy Rice finished seventh and fifteenth, respectively, in the final standings.
In the 17-race 2005 IRL season, Danica posted two Top Five finishes (fourth-place finishes at Motegi and in the Indianapolis 500), seven Top Ten finishes, three pole positions, nine Top Five starts, twelve Top Ten starts, led five races for a total of 63 laps led, set one Fast Lap, and failed to finish four races (three accident-caused, one mechanical). Danica posted an average start of 7.76 and an average finish of 12.47. Her average start rank in the three-car team was 1.71, her average finish rank 2.06. She led the team in starting position in 10 races (Rice 4, Meira 3) and in finish position in four races (Meira 11, Rice 2).
Danica kicked off the 2006 season by competing in the Daytona 24 Hours GARRA Rolex series classic, sharing the Howard-Boss team’s Pontiac-powered Crawford Daytona Prototype with endurance stars Jan Lammers and Allan McNish and NASCAR great Rusty Wallace. The car retired after only 273 laps of the 734-lap event, placing fiftieth overall and twenty-fourth in class.
For 2006, Rahal/Letterman Racing’s driver lineup was comprised of Danica, Buddy Rice, and new driver Paul Dana as Vitor Meira left the team. Rahal/Letterman Racing’s 2006 season began on a sad note with the fatal practice accident of Paul Dana prior to the race at Homestead; Danica and Rice were withdrawn from the race. Their season began with the St. Petersburg street circuit race. Danica qualified fourteenth but finished sixth, on the lead lap, her best IRL result to that point on a street or road course and better than Rice, who led the team with a seventh-place start. The Motegi oval in Japan was next; Jeff Simmons joined the team in their third car to return the Rahal/Letterman squad to full strength. Danica’s fourteenth-place qualification led the team and she finished eighth, on the lead lap. Rice led the team with a fifth-place finish. The 2006 Indianapolis 500 was not quite as productive as 2005 for Danica and Rahal/Letterman; Danica led the team with a tenth-place start and an eighth-place, lead lap finish. On to Watkins Glen, where Danica qualified sixteenth (Rice led the team by starting eleventh), had a contact incident on lap 20, but finished eighth, on the lead lap, for the third consecutive 2006 event! Rice led the team with a fourth-place finish.
Through Watkins Glen, Rahal/Letterman had been utilizing Panoz chassis but switched to Dallara beginning with the Texas oval race. Danica qualified fourteenth, with Rice just ahead in thirteenth. Patrick led the team with a twelfth-place finish, one lap down. The Richmond short oval saw Danica lead the team with a fourteenth-place start but she finished fifteenth, four laps down, as Rice’s thrirteenth-place finish led the team. The Kansas oval produced more disappointment, as Danica started twelfth (Rice led the team in ninth) and finished eleventh, two laps down. Simmons led the team by finishing just ahead of Danica in tenth.
Danica finally achieved her first 2006 IRL Top Five finish on the Nashville oval, finishing fourth, on the lead lap, after starting tenth as she led the team. On the Milwaukee oval Simmons posted the best start, sixth, with Danica fourteenth, but Patrick rebounded to finish fourth, on the lead lap, for the second consecutive race as she led the team.
The high-speed Michigan 400 saw Danica qualify eleventh, just one spot behind team leader Rice in tenth, but mechanical failure just three laps short of the finish retired her car and robbed her of a Top Ten finish as she placed seventeenth. Simmons led the team with a tenth-place finish. Danica led the team in qualifying at Kentucky, starting eleventh, and also posted the team’s best finish, eighth, on the lead lap. Danica’s third consecutive eleventh-place qualification of 2006, at Sears Point (driving a Panoz in this road course event), again led the team, and she finished eighth, on the lead lap, just one spot behind Simmons. Thus Danica finished eighth in both 2006 road course events. The Chicagoland oval race completed the season and was a disappointment for Danica as she qualified only fifteenth (Rice led the team in ninth) and finished twelfth, one lap down. Simmons led the team with an eighth-place finish.
In thirteen races in the 2006 IRL season, Danica posted two Top Five finishes (fourths at Nashville at Milwaukee), eight Top Ten finishes, two Top Ten starts (tenths at Indianapolis and Nashville), and only one retirement (mechanical at Michigan). Her average finish was 9.31, her average start 12.77. Danica’s average team finish rank was 1.62, her average team start rank 1.69. She was the team’s leading finisher six times (Simmons four, Rice three) and the team’s leading starter six times (Rice six, Simmons one). Danica finished ninth in 2006 IRL points, her first Top Ten ranking coming in only her second season! Rice ranked fifteenth in points, Simmons sixteenth, all three impacted by missing the season-opener due to the Dana tragedy.
In Danica’s thirty races with Rahal Letterman, she led the team at the finish ten times. Vitor Meira led the team eleven times, Buddy Rice five, and Jeff Simmons four. In qualifying, Danica led the team sixteen times to ten for Rice, three for Meira, and one for Simmons.