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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2006

Team Rahal's future unclear

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Danica Patrick tidies up after qualifying 11th for today's race. Next season, she'll be qualifying in Michigan as a member of Andretti Green Racing. Danica Patrick tidies up after qualifying 11th for today's race. Next season, she'll be qualifying in Michigan as a member of Andretti Green Racing.
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BROOKLYN, Mich. - Racing teams are supposed to be adept at shifting gears, but the events of the past few days have tested the ability of Rahal Letterman Racing to shift on the fly and keep moving forward.

The team is reeling a bit from the announcement that Danica Patrick, the only woman in the IndyCar Series and one of the sport's top draws, is leaving at the end of the season to join Andretti Green Racing.

Patrick first shocked the racing world when she challenged for the pole at the Indianapolis 500 last year as a rookie, and then led late in the race before finishing fourth. She was an easy winner of IndyCar Series rookie of the year honors. With her contract at Rahal Letterman expiring, Patrick shopped her talents elsewhere.

Her departure stung Rahal, and the team issued a brief statement in reaction. "Danica Patrick has informed Rahal Letterman Racing that she will be leaving our team. We wish her well in her future endeavors."

Patrick, who had voiced frustration over her team's inability to keep pace with Marlboro Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing, two teams that have dominated the series this season, was gracious about the separation.

"I've had a great run with the Rahal Letterman team, and a very good relationship with Bobby Rahal," Patrick said. "He helped me a lot, and I am grateful for that. I just felt like it might be time for a change, time for something new. I think Andretti Green will provide me with the opportunity to win races, and that's what any driver wants - the best opportunity to win. I went with what I thought was best for my future."

Rahal teamate Buddy Rice, who took home the Indy 500 championship for the team in 2004 and is under contract with Rahal for another year, sounded uncertain about the future in the hours before today's Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan International Speedway. The underlying concern is that major sponsors might jump ship to stay connected with Patrick.

"We'll just have to wait and see what happens," Rice said. "We'll have to see if Bob secures sponsorship. As of right now, I have a year left on my deal, but it's still kind of up in the air with the way sponsorship is right now. I haven't talked to other teams, and there's not a lot of seats open right now, but anything is possible. I just know I want to drive race cars."

Jeff Simmons, another teammate of Patrick's, said her move to Andretti was not something anyone expected, since Patrick had signed with Rahal back in 2002.

"I have to say I was a little bit surprised by it, since she'd been associated with Bobby Rahal for such a long time," Simmons said.

"He has a lot invested in her, and he was with her from the start, basically bringing her up through the ranks and all. I kind of thought she would try and stick it out here and get through the tough times. She's had a lot of success here, but she made the decision she felt was best for her future, so we wish her the best."

Patrick, who qualified 11th for today's race, is ninth in the IndyCar Series points race. Michael Andretti would not divulge the terms of Patrick's new contract but indicated he intended to keep her in his fold.

"I expect her to be a real asset to this team, and we hope she'll be with us for a long time," Andretti said. "Our focus has been and always will be on winning races and winning championships. We certainly believe Danica will do that. She has made it very clear that one of her goals as a driver is to win the Indianapolis 500, and we are looking forward to giving her a great opportunity to do that."



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