Patrick, Mutoh Planning to Flex AGR Oval-Track Muscle at Kentucky Speedway
Danica Patrick and Hideki Mutoh are hoping the IndyCar Series return to oval racing in Kentucky Speedway's "Meijer Indy 300 Presented by Red Baron and Edy's" will provide the tonic their Andretti Green Racing (AGR) team needs to shake the woes it encountered during its five road and street course races this season.
The four-car team which also features Marco Andretti , who placed third at Kentucky last season, and veteran Tony Kanaan, the 2007 Kentucky race winner and 2004 series champion, has collected a combined nine top-five and 18 top-10 finishes in races on six oval tracks compared to a combined four top-five and nine top-10 finishes in events contested on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Streets of Long Beach, Watkins Glen International, Streets of Toronto and Edmonton City Centre Airport. Patrick, who started the 2005 Kentucky race from the pole position, has been the most consistent among the AGR quartet through 11 of a scheduled 17 races. The Roscoe, Ill., driver rolls into her fifth career Kentucky Speedway start fifth in the championship standings after racing to five top-five and eight top-10 finishes. Her average oval-track finish is 5.5 versus 10.2 on the road and street courses. She registered an 11th-place finish in the July 26 event at the Edmonton City Centre Airport.
"We haven't had the strongest cars on road courses, especially at the bumpier tracks where we struggled more, that's definitely Edmonton. We had a rough weekend, a rough couple of weeks, but we're always strong on the ovals.
"I think particularly this year we're doing well (on ovals). We have, in the past, been a little behind, but I think it's pretty close out there. I'm glad to be here, glad to be back on an oval. Indy car racing was started on the ovals and I still think it's the most exciting racing for the fans to watch, specifically at Kentucky where we can race side-by-side," Patrick said.
She earned her Kentucky Speedway IndyCar Series-best eighth-place finish in 2006 and hopes to shake the bad racing luck endured in three additional starts at the track in which she placed 16th twice and 11th last season.
"I feel like I would've had a great race last year but we had a little 'wheel-fall-off-the car' malfunction in practice. We were really fast, like top three, and we didn't get the car ready for qualifying in time, so I didn't even qualify. It's tough when you have those situations.
"In the past, I broke my gearbox running in the top five, I think it was my first year here. I was many laps down, but I came from the back, climbed up to the lead group and then let off to let them race their last 10 laps. I've had good cars here, I just haven't caught the breaks and luck that I need to be upfront. Hopefully, this will be the weekend to get it," Patrick said.
Mutoh hopes to recapture the Kentucky energy that propelled him to a 2007 Firestone Indy Lights victory from the pole position.
"I'm looking forward to this race because we struggled on the road courses. I have a good memory here from 2007 when I won the (Firestone) Indy Lights race. I was on the pole, led the whole race and won. I like being back here," he said.
Both drivers will be aided by IndyCar Series rules that will allow drivers to utilize new adjustments to increase their car's downforce to create stronger grip, higher speeds and entertaining racing.
"If you want to win the race you have to have a good car, a good driver and luck. I hope I have luck at this track, so I'm looking forward to it. I think the added downforce will make for more overtaking and side-by-side racing. It can be a lot more interesting and the tire life is longer. I think it will make everybody more comfortable in traffic, it's going to be fun," Mutoh added.
In addition to added downforce, Patrick also looks forward to working with her AGR teammates to help their four cars reach the front of the pack.
"Whenever there's a lot of side-by-side racing and whenever you have more teammates, you can help each other and look out for each other a little bit out there. I'm sure we'll try to put that into effect here and get all the cars to the front.
"I remember back to my first year in IndyCar in '05. Coming here and to so many other mile-and-a-half ovals, it (racing) was five, six rows deep, two cars and sometimes three cars wide. You would be just planted out there and it was fine.
"I think what makes this track interesting for racing is that it's easy flat, but the car can go off a little and you might have to lift a little every now and again if it's not perfect. That's what leads to the good side by racing.
"It's relatively straightforward here, it's not extremely bumpy and it doesn't have an extremely different characteristic that makes it difficult for the car. The grip level is pretty good, but if the car isn't set up free enough around the corner you might end up finding yourself overworking the rear tires, or more likely the front tires and that will lead to some passing.
"That's why the racing is exciting here. Primarily it's because there is a second lane. Some of the tracks we go to get funneled down to one lane, because it's just the longer way around to go up top. That's true here, but since cars can be a little off you can pass.
"Really, it's kind of back to that exciting racing where anything can happen. Road courses are just so much different because the strategy is different. It's okay to pit under green. This is back to yellow flag pit stops and side-by-side racing. If you're 10th, you can still come back and pass people. I think we've had success with that in the past, Patrick said.
Should the AGR plan play out, Patrick likes her chances of maintaining the consistency that helped her earn seven straight top-10 finishes earlier this season and her position in the championship hunt.
"I think traditionally I've always been a consistent driver, so it just kind of depends on what kind of car you have that year. If it's a good car then you consistently run up in the top five, if it's an average car then you might run sixth to eighth each weekend.
"That's why I've been saying if we could just get these cars underneath us that are capable of winning, which sometimes they are and sometimes they're a lot tougher to win with - particularly on the road courses for us. Once we those cars, I have a chance at being a championship contender and potentially winning a championship just because consistency is one of my strong suits," she said.
IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights action begins today when gates open at 5:00 p.m. IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights qualifying precedes a one-hour autograph session beginning at 7:30 p.m. The IndyCar Series returns to the track for final practice at 9:00 p.m.
Weekend tickets, new infield camping and Big Deals can be reserved through the end of the business day today through the tickets pages of this Web site, by phone at 888-652-RACE (7223, the Sparta, Ky., Fan Center off of Interstate 71 Exit 57 and Ky. Hwy. 35 North or the speedway gates. Tickets go on sale tomorrow at speedway main gates at 2:00 p.m.
Story by Mike Schmaltz
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