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Danica Patrick heads into a new phase of life after racing

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Danica Patrick blazed her way through motorsports like no woman ever had.

She was fearless in an Indy car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a white-knuckle track that has shaken the nerves of many a driver. With marketing savvy and strong sponsorship support, she built a platform that made her one of the most recognizable athletes in the world - not just among female athletes, either. Patrick leads all celebrities with a record 14 appearances in Super Bowl commercials.

Patrick spoke her mind, verbally sparred with rivals, didn't back down from anything.

All of which made it so startling two weeks ago when Patrick, steely and stoic in public for so many years, wept as she announced she will drive just two more races : next year's Daytona 500 in February and then the Indianapolis 500 three months later in a "Danica Double" that will close out her career at the track that played a huge part in her fame.

She knew for several months that her days as a full-time race car driver were dwindling, but making it official brought out a wave of emotion few had ever seen from Patrick.

"It's hard to say things out loud," she later explained.

Patrick sat down with The Associated Press for nearly an hour prior to announcing her retirement plan. She was ecstatic about what is ahead. There was no sadness, just acceptance that for the first time in more than a decade she had sponsorship problems and had to find something else to do with her life.

By the end of the NASCAR season, after just one top-10 finish and tying her career low of 28th in the Cup standings, she said: "I couldn't have been more miserable. It's been such a grind and I always said, if I don't think I can run better than where I am, then it's not fun and I don't want to do it."

Patrick is aware of her legacy in racing. She is the only woman to lead laps in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. She finished fourth as a rookie at Indy, where she led 19 laps and "Danica Mania" was born. Four years later, she was a career-best third at "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

A star was born and sponsor GoDaddy wanted to move to NASCAR, where the visibility was higher. But like most every open-wheel driver before her, Patrick struggled in the transition to stock cars.

At five full seasons at NASCAR's highest level, she lasted longer than peers Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., both IndyCar champions and Indy 500 winners. Still, Patrick had just seven top-10 finishes in 190 races, one pole - her rookie year at the Daytona 500 - and never finished higher than 24th in the standings. Critics bring all that up whenever Patrick's legacy is mentioned.

"I feel like it takes away from everything else I've accomplished," Patrick said. "I don't want to be remembered for the things that didn't go as well. I want to be remembered for the things that did go well."

And so begins the second act for a 35-year-old who left her Illinois home nearly two decades ago to travel alone as a teenager to Europe and pursue a career in open-wheel racing.

Her plate most certainly is full.

Patrick has an athletic clothing line sold through HSN and a fitness book coming out in a matter of weeks. She thinks she will have more free time to be hands-on with the clothing design in New York, and that her debut book, "Pretty Intense," a 90-day mind, body and food plan, can lead to a series of fitness opportunities or a series of books.

She has a winery in Northern California and thinks she now will have time to attend festivals, dinner auctions and promote her wine, Somnium. She also would like to pursue a potential cooking show.

There is also longtime boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a rising star in NASCAR who made the playoffs this season for the first time. She is previously divorced, he is five years her junior, but she's ready for the next chapter with Stenhouse and interested in starting a family.

"These have always been things I've done on the side," she said. "I'm involved, but now I'm going to have the time to be really involved."

After so many years as a fierce competitor, Patrick is not sure what will fill that void. She remembers a conversation she had on a bus in Japan with former CART champion Jimmy Vasser after he retired.

"He talked about how when he quit racing, he missed the highs and lows, he missed the peaks and valleys, and it just wasn't exciting enough," Patrick said. "I've always thought about that - once you've experienced what it's like to go through those humongous transitions. Will you miss it? Will you not? Will it be a relief?

"Because when the season ends now, I am able to relax. But will I be able to evolve into that and let that be a comfortable space for me to live in? I think I could."

She still has two races left and needs a business plan that makes it work for a team owner. The leading candidate for the "Danica Double" is Chip Ganassi Racing , but the owner will only do it if it makes financial sense. And Patrick will only do it if she's in a car that can win.

Ganassi has previously said if he ran a one-off Indy entry next year it would be for NASCAR star Kyle Larson, a close friend of Patrick and Stenhouse. Should she make it work, it could delay Larson's dream of running Indy. Or, it could put them side-by-side on the same frantic schedule next May.

Those in Patrick's inner circle have found she is both at peace with where she's headed, and excited to go full circle and end her career at Indy.

Is she nervous? C'mon. This is Danica Patrick.

"No. No. And I say this humbly, but it's usually been like that," she said. "I feel like when it's all on the line, and the attention is high and the pressure is high, for some reason it ignites something in me and great things happen for me. I hope that continues, and can't think of a better time than at Indy."

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More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org

Updated December 1, 2017

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