INDIANAPOLIS — Danica Patrick trudged out of the infield care center with her head down, mirrored sunglasses covering the disappointment in her eyes.
There was no hiding it in her voice.
“It was definitely not the way that I wanted it to end,” she said softly.
The 36-year-old Patrick crashed out of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, ending her racing career at the track that made her famous. She lost traction on a slippery surface, spun as she exited Turn 2 and then slammed into two walls before coming to a stop.
She finished 30th, her lowest spot in eight starts at “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“Definitely not a great ending,” she said. “But I kind of said before I came here that I feel like if it’s a complete disaster — complete like as if not in the ballpark at all, look silly — then people might remember that. If I win, people will remember that.
“But probably anything in between might just be a little part of a big story, so I kind of feel like that’s how it is, you know.”
The big story, of course, is her place in racing history. The former NASCAR star is the only female driver to lead laps in the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500, creating a strong brand and becoming a role model for little girls everywhere.
She decided last season to end her racing career and start the next chapter of her life. She created the “Danica Double” as a farewell tour, running one final time in the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500.
She also crashed at Daytona in February and finished 35th. She spent the last few months getting re-acclimated to an Indy car after a seven-year hiatus and looked like a contender while qualifying seventh.
The final stop was a celebratory send-off that included dozens of family, friends and photographers following her every move before the finale.
Patrick stood stoically behind her bright green race car during pre-race pageantry, with boyfriend and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, her parents and sister by her side. Patrick’s face was glistening, sweat rolling down her back in near-record-breaking heat. A crewmember quickly turned on a small, powerful fan. Patrick’s hair started blowing in the wind, turning her pose into an impromptu photo-shoot — likely her last one in a firesuit.
“I was definitely nervous,” she said. “I had all my people around me, so I was in good spirits.”
Just before the singing of the national anthem, with the crowd as quiet as it would be all day, one fan screamed from the grandstands, “Let’s go Danica!” She smiled, turned and waved.
After the anthem, she hugged her parents and sister and then got a long embrace from Rodgers. He whispered in her right ear, gave her a kiss and then smacked her on the butt as she maneuvered to get her helmet on and slide into the cockpit. Rodgers headed upstairs to watch the race from a luxury suite.
Patrick dropped several spots shortly after the green flag, battling an ill-handling Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing. She was the first driver to make a pit stop in hopes of making a few changes.
She was running in the middle of the field on Lap 68 when she spun sideways, hit the outside wall and then caromed across the track and into an inside barrier. She was evaluated at the care center and released.
She answered a few questions outside the building and then got a golf cart ride for another media session. The final news conference of her racing career came with a hiccup. The television broadcast got piped over loudspeakers as she was trying to talk.
“Take my mic away,” she said, only half-joking. “I’ll leave. I don’t even want to be here because I’m pretty sad.”
Patrick was a polarizing figure in racing, and that increased exponentially when she moved from IndyCar to NASCAR beginning in 2010. She struggled to run up front despite driving for a powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing team much of her career, and she wound up with just seven top-10 finishes in five full seasons.
Still, she is respected and, in some cases, revered at Indianapolis, where fans remember her leading the 2009 race before finishing third. She was surrounded by autograph-seekers all month, and she got one of the loudest ovations during driver introductions Sunday.
Patrick said earlier this week she had no regrets about her career, and that she doesn’t think she will have the itch to come back. Instead, she plans to spend time on her burgeoning business empire and with Rodgers.
“I’m very grateful for everybody and for being able to finish it up like I wanted to,” she said. “It still was a lot of great memories this month, a lot of great moments this year.”