Danica Patrick ready to bid farewell to her racing career at Indy 500

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Danica Patrick waits during qualifications for the IndyCar Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

INDIANAPOLIS — Three days before the last race of her career, Danica Patrick is feeling a little bit of everything — nervous, excited, anxious. That’s how she usually feels before a race, especially a big one, and it’s all part of keeping her final race weekend normal.

But she’s ready for her career finale, Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s not like I’m going to try harder, it’s not like I’m going to drive scared,” Patrick told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. “I’m just going to drive like I normally drive; whatever happens, happens.”

The slight deviation from normalcy is doing more of what she wants to do, like having a glass of wine home alone at her parents’ house after qualifying seventh last Sunday. And then there’s a little extra thought about what it would mean to do well. Or even to win.

“It would just be … “ she said, pausing to think, “[expletive] awesome.”

Patrick, 36, will have a shot to improve her career-best third-place finish (2009) in the Indy 500 — also the record for female drivers. From the third row on the grid, she’ll pilot the No. 13 GoDaddy Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing for one more race before retiring from the sport.

Regardless of where Patrick finishes among the 32 other drivers at the Brickyard, she leaves behind a trail of pioneering accomplishments in a male-dominated industry.

“I was very fortunate,” she said of her career. “I had some high points along the way, and I had fun. I was miserable sometimes because I cared so much about succeeding, and I did it my way.”

She was the first and remains the only woman to race consistently full-time in both IndyCar and NASCAR. She was the first female driver to win an IndyCar race — the 2008 Indy Japan 300 — and to lead laps in the Indy 500, which she did as a rookie in 2005.

But this isn’t how or when Patrick envisioned her 14-year career ending, and she certainly never imagined doing the Indy 500 again.

Switching to solely focus on NASCAR in 2012 after seven years in IndyCar, she raced stock cars for six full-time seasons — eight total — when it all came to an end in 2017. At the Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, Patrick burst into tears seconds after sitting down for her press conference, explaining it was her last full-time season in the sport.

Her announcement followed sponsorship and contractual issues that began early last season, and in September, she confirmed she was not returning to Stewart-Haas Racing, the Cup Series team she had been with since 2013.

But her tearful news offered a bittersweet ending. In what has since been dubbed the “Danica Double,” her final NASCAR race was the 2018 Daytona 500, and she’s ending her career at the Brickyard.

“I don’t feel like I was necessarily pushed into this,” Patrick said at Homestead in November. “I feel like I should be doing this. I feel like this is where my life should be headed, and sometimes we just get kind of nudged there.”

For her final race weekend, Patrick is spending her scarce down time surrounded by her loved ones: her mom and dad — she’s been living at their Indianapolis home all week — her sister and her boyfriend, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who she said will attend his first IndyCar race.

And when she takes off her red, silver and blue helmet for the last time, it will be the end of an era for women in racing. Not because she’s the only one behind the wheel, but because for more than a decade, she has been the headliner for female drivers.

“I never thought I would do [the Indy 500 again], I really didn’t,” Patrick said while announcing her final races. “But I never said never because I know better. And thank God, right? Because here I am.”

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