Sunday, April 20, 2008

How Danica Won

Today sportwriters around the globe will be heaping praise on Indycar driver Danica Patrick, and deservedly so. But I'm going to attempt the unpopular; to view this win as a victory for Danica and her team, not for her gender.

Make no mistake, it's an amazing feat: the first victory by a woman in any major sport where women compete openly with men. It's never happened in the top levels of golf, tennis, track, swimming, nor skiing. And prior to today, it's never happened in top-level motor racing. Danica will never again be called the Anna Kournikova of racing, as the ESPN broadcasters pointed out.

But on Sunday many of us who have followed young Danica from her early days were expecting her usual result: a strong run in top-quality equipment, with a 7th place finish, probably behind one or two of her teammates. So when I first learned of the win in the morning headlines (like most of the Western Hemisphere -- see yesterday's post for that bit of broadcast drama), I must admit my first reaction was, "I wonder what chain of events cleared the way for her win?"

Cynical? Perhaps. As I watched today's rebroadcast on ESPN2, I was curious to see how she would do it. I hoped it would be with on-track passing. That would quiet the critics.

The skeptical part of me still expected a fortuitous yellow flag, and sure enough at the midway point the yellow was shown just after she finished a pit stop. But a funny thing happened on my way to the fridge: she gained no position from that pit series.


She held her position at about 8th spot until another yellow at lap 144, and once again I thought "ah, here it is". But once again, she rejoined the pack with no advantage.

I started wondering if she might actually have to pass the 7 or so cars in front of her on the track to take the lead. Might we see her muscle her way past the superstars of the sport? To do so, she'll have to pass Wheldon, Dixon, Castroneves, Briscoe, and Kanaan under green with 56 laps left, a nearly impossible task for any driver who's name is not Hornish.

Or... she'll need to gain the position by strategy.

The opportunity for strategy presented itself as the cleanup under yellow proceeded for longer than usual. We got a clue when Team Andretti was able to run Hideaki Mutoh for the longest run of the day, 51 laps.

And then... it happened. Danica and two other leading cars (Ed Carpenter and Helio Castroneves) were called back into the pits by their teams to top off the fuel, potentially eliminating their need to stop again.

The field took the green and Danica had the fuel dialed back into conservation mode. She was getting passed by everyone on the lead lap; in her own words, she was "taking it easy". With 11 laps to go, Danica was running 8th, and the question became how will she get by Carpenter and Castroneves, who were running 4th and 5th. That question was answered on lap 195 when Carpenter headed to the pits and Castroneves was given the instruction by Tim Cindric to "make fuel".

As Helio and a fast-approaching Patrick passed by the grandstands with 3 to go, the engine note on the Penske car was noticably lower than Danica's -- he was a sitting duck. Danica passed him for the lead and was the last man standing (a cliche which doesn't work in the man sense nor in the standing sense) to take the checked flag.

So it's a fuel-strategy win. It was brilliant team planning, perfectly executed by Danica, and led to a milestone win. As a driver, she deserves all the accolades of any first-time winner; but in the ensuing worldwide conversation about a woman beating a field of men head-to-head, it bears remembering that it was brains, not brawn, that prevailed.

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