April 21, 2008 -- "I can die happy knowing that it happened finally," said race car driver Danica Patrick on "Good Morning America" today, about her historic win at the Japan 300 in Indy-car race this weekend.
After crossing the finish line, and becoming the first female driver in Indy history to win a race, the 26-year-old Wisconsin native was overcome with emotion and began to cry.
"I felt like such a wuss. I couldn't believe I was crying. I tried to stay in the car. I thought, 'I can't stay in the car. I have to get out of the seat.' They were like 'take the helmet off.' I thought, 'this is sports, right? This is raw emotion. What better time to let it out and be myself,' Patrick said.
Grabbing the checkered flag silenced Patrick's critics, who remembered her as the most famous race car driver without a win. Now she says she can breathe a little bit easier. "I'm not a different person. I'm not a different driver now. I have a win under my belt which can sometimes help your conscience and help your performance a little bit because you have that mind frame," she told GMA.
In the final two laps of the 200-lap race, she took the lead, as her mother watched and cheered in the stands. Patrick finished 5.8594 seconds ahead of pole-sitter Helio Castroneves on the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi oval, after other top contenders were forced to pit for fuel in their final laps.
She credited the win to her ability to skip a final pit-stop for fuel.
"The last stop is really what told the story. You never quite know when the cautions are going to fall and when you're going to be able to efficiently stop in the pits for fuel."
"I pit at the beginning and the end. Helio Castroneves was on the same strategy. As soon as we went back to green, they told me what fuel number I needed to meet. And I did that, and we knew we could safely make it to the end under green, so it was a great strategy."
Patrick described her intense focus at the end of the race on Castroneves. "When I saw him at the end of the back straightaway I remember seeing him and thinking, 'look, this goes caution or if he, for some reason, can speed up at the end, I'll be so mad if I don't push and try to catch him.'"
Castroneves has appeared on ABC's "Dancing With The Stars," but Patrick said she had no plans to follow his lead. "He's such a happy person. He's always smiling. He suits that show very well. I'm a little bit more serious and I don't think I could put on the smile that needs to happen to win everyone's heart over. So I'll stick to the racing for now."
"She did a great job, passed me fair and square, and that shows you how competitive our series is," Castroneves told The Associated Press.
Since she entered the professional racing scene, Patrick has received a bevy of press— and pressure— with everyone closely watching her performances. In 2005 she became only the fourth woman to ever race in the Indy 500; she finished fourth and took rookie of the year honors. Her historic win came during her 50th professional start.
"People are watching, and that means if you do well, they are there. But if you do bad, they are watching, too," Patrick said in a May 2006 interview with ABC News' "World News."
But the examination and inquiries followed her off the track, boosting her popularity. Patrick's model good looks and brash personality helped place her on magazine covers and in racy photo spreads.
"Boys, move over. The lady is coming through. Danica Patrick wins the Twin Motegi," the announcer said as she crossed the finish line.
As reporters swarmed round a tearful Patrick immediately after her win, she was mindful to thank her crew, who she believed helped her win. "Thank you to all my teammates, and … finally," she said.