Courtesy of ESPN.com
MOTEGI, Japan — Twin Ring Motegi is regarded as one of the toughest oval tracks in the world. Yet Danica Patrick always seems to excel on the 1.549-mile speedway in the mountains north of Tokyo.
At the site of her only Izod IndyCar Series race win, Patrick was on pace all day on the way to a fifth-place finish Sunday in the Japan Indy 300. It was one of Danica’s best races, exceeded this year only by her second-place run at Texas Motor Speedway.
Patrick qualified ninth and consistently moved forward during the 200-lap event.
“A lot of the passes did come on track, and it’s a nice feeling,” Patrick said. “It’s always nice to have good starts and restarts because sometimes I’m not so good there. It just shows I had a good car underneath me today, and I was confident in it.
“I’ve just been really frustrated with this season,” she added. “It seems like all the hard work we’ve put in this year doesn’t show in the results. I think today it at least showed in the results that we moved up, we had pace and we ran with those lead-lap cars. Maybe not Helio [Castroneves, the race winner] — he was pretty quick. But it was a nice day to have and it came at the right time.”After enduring an uncompetitive series of midseason road races, Patrick has rebounded to run competitively in two of the past three events staged on oval tracks.She has always run well at Motegi; she qualified on the outside of the front row, led the first laps of her Indy car career and finished fourth as a rookie in 2005. And of course she claimed the historic first Indy car victory for a female driver in 2008, passing Castroneves with just two laps remaining as Helio slowed to conserve fuel.With its asymmetrical layout, Motegi is considered one of the toughest oval tracks, and it’s a point of pride to Danica that she always seems to perform at her best in Japan. ”I was thinking about that out there, actually,” she said with a laugh. “It’s always nice to do well at tracks that are considered drivers’ tracks. When this race used to be before [the Indianapolis 500], everybody was like, ‘You do well at Motegi and you do well at Indy.’ And I think [Turns] 3 and 4 play a little bit like Indy. You can pinch it on the exit, you can let it drift wide. The car is moving around and you’re not flat out, just like at Indy.”I think my style of being smooth and keeping the car underneath me and not pushing it too hard so that it goes off in a run serves me well,” she added. “Everything came together, and I have to say my engineer made good decisions with the car for race day.”Although the IndyCar Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway is two weeks away, Patrick will not have a weekend off. She’s scheduled to compete in both the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and the Nationwide Series at Dover International Speedway.Coming off one of IndyCar’s toughest ovals, her task won’t get any easier at Dover, renowned as one of NASCAR’s trickiest tracks. ”You know, everybody has put the fear of God in me about Dover, and I’m pretty nervous,” she said. “I’ve got three in-car DVDs to watch in preparation and I’m doing two races that weekend in order to prepare for the Nationwide as well as I can.”
Patrick’s best finish in the Nationwide series this year is 24th place.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.