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Danica draws big crowd despite disappointing run

Danica Patrick qualified 16th out of 20 cars for today's Watkins Glen Indy Grand Prix. But there was still a mob scene by her table in the garage area when it was time for the drivers' autograph session.

Patrick was disappointed in her one-lap qualifying mark of 1:33.8566 (129.261 mph) Saturday at Watkins Glen International. While it was her fastest clocking of the weekend, the series leader in attention will start in the eighth of 10 rows.

"It's my best lap here, so I have to be happy about that, but I've been disappointed with my road course qualifying this year," said Patrick, who has a background in road course racing in the Toyota Atlantic series, but in cars that are much lighter. "I have to take a step back and look at the experience of some of the other guys in this series, they've driven Formula One, Formula 3000. I am in my rookie series and it takes a lot to drive these machines around a course like Watkins Glen. I'm not happy by any means but I have to give myself a little salvation about the situation of being a rookie."

Patrick, who started 16th and finished 20th at the road course in Sonoma, Calif., could clinch the Rookie of the Year title today. She has a 79-point lead on Tomas Enge and would clinch the title if he fails to gain 26 points.

About an hour before the autograph session was to begin, a line wound well outside the garage area as fans lined up to meet the first woman to lead a lap of the Indianapolis 500.

Patrick's table was the only one which had plastic barriers up to control traffic and a few local sheriffs standing by as security. Indy 500 and series champion Dan Wheldon, whose line of about 50 people was at most one-fourth of the throng crowded around Danica, was a distant second.

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A chill in the air and some leaves changing color on the hills surrounding the southern tip of Seneca Lake weren't the only differences between Watkins Glen's major race, the Nextel Cup's annual August stop for the Sirius Satellite Radio at the Glen, and this weekend's visit by the IRL.

Instead of the 2.45-mile course the NASCAR drivers cover, the "long course" is being used, which includes a four-turn extension with a shape that has given it the nickname "the boot." Each series considers its race to have 11 turns -- the Nextel Cup counts the inner loop (which also goes by the nicknames of the bus stop or the carousel) as four turns, but the IRL does not.

"The is one of the most beautiful tracks in North America," said Patrick Carpentier, a native of Quebec, Canada. "It's a thrill to drive here."

Another difference is the fans. While several thousand were on the grounds for Saturday's qualifying, there were far less people than for the NASCAR race. While she was mobbed at an afternoon autograph session, at one point near the end of Saturday morning's practice, Danica Patrick took a lonely trot from the garage to her camper with no fans buzzing around her. There's no way Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon would have that kind of privacy here in August.

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Max Angelelli and Scott Taylor drove their No. 10 Pontiac Riley to victory lane in the Crown Royal 250, the second straight race they've won in the Grand American Rolex Sports Car series at the Glen. Angelelli and Taylor, the Daytona Prototype points leaders in the series, also won here in August.

It was not Groundhog Day during the race. In a rather grotesque incident, a small groundhog or woodchuck found its way onto the backstretch during the final laps and was smashed by Angelelli, who was trying to hold off a charging Scott Pruett.

"I just saw this big black thing, and I didn't know what it was, and I hit it," said Angelelli. "I did see the animal, and I was saying 'No, no, no!' I didn't like that at all. There wasn't much I could do. It was a big shot, a big hit -- it moved the car."

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Sam Hornish qualified 11th for today's IRL race despite using a backup car after smashing his primary vehicle coming out of "the boot" during Saturday morning's practice. . . . Wade Cunningham of Auckland, New Zealand, has the pole for today's 1:30 p.m. Menards Indy Pro Series Corning 100.

-- Keith McShea

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