Danica Patrick Revved Up for Indy 500

With a top speed more than 220 miles per hour, Danica Patrick is one of the fastest race car drivers in the world -- and with all her magazine covers and commercial endorsements, her life is just as fast off the race course.

At five-foot-one and 100 pounds, Patrick is in control of a car that costs $8 million a season to race and weighs 1,550 pounds.

It's been a year since Patrick burst onto the speedway scene, a rookie driver hailed as much for her glamorous looks as her skill behind the wheel. Sunday, in front of a quarter million people at the Indianapolis 500 "brickyard" and millions more watching on TV, she will try to do what she could not last year -- win.

There have been other women Indy drivers, but Patrick is the first female to be given a legitimate chance at winning.

At last year's Indy 500, she placed fourth and led the race for 19 laps -- a never-before-accomplished feat that had the quarter million race fans standing and screaming. For the first time in race history, fourth was first. In fact, it was her picture on Sports Illustrated, not the winner's.

"She electrified this event," said Bobby Rahal, co-owner of Patrick's racing team. "And here the guy who won the race, nobody even knew who it was -- and that's unfortunate for him."

Since Patrick came on the scene, ratings for Indy racing have gone up almost 60 percent.

It's been a remarkable year for Patrick: She was rookie of the year in Indy racing, got married to a sports doctor, wrote a book and again is one of the Indy 500 favorites.

"You top that by winning a whole bunch of races, including Indy," Patrick said.

Patrick will have more experience in her second Indy race. But a slower car and a fourth-row start will make winning a challenge.

Winning is the real pressure for Patrick. She is popular, fast and a great ambassador for the sport. But the great fear is that without a major win, she will be the racing equivalent of tennis star Anna Kournikova -- more model than athlete.

"She really needs to win in the next few years," said Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today, "or else the pressure will just build and build and build."

Patrick is used to the attention: She is surrounded wherever she goes, and no-one ever lets her forget she is in a sport dominated by men.

"Oh, there's tons of advantages to being a woman in racing and disadvantages too," Patrick said. "I mean, when something's so good, it always comes with such a negative, too. And people are watching, and people are watching -- and that means that if you do well, they're there. But if you do bad, they're watching too."

This is a 24-year-old woman who has been racing for 15 years, beginning with go-carts. She has the skills to run within inches of her opponents at 200 miles per hour, and she has crashed before.

The first race of the season this year in Miami brought the danger of her chosen sport closer to home: Patrick's teammate Paul Dana was killed, causing Patrick to think of her own mortality and racing's effect on family.

"I feel bad that I would put them in that situation … to ever have to deal with that," Patrick said, "because I'm selfish enough to want to pursue this going on and on and on."

But the danger, pressure and exposure? It's all of it part of being racing's fastest woman.

ABC News' Jim Avila and Christina Romano reported this story for "World News Tonight."