Byline: Gary Graves
As Sarah Fisher scratched one racing itch last year driving stock cars in a Western regional series, she always felt her place was in an open-wheeled Indy car and returning simply depended on timing and opportunity.
Neither came together last spring for the Indianapolis 500, but Fisher visited enough IRL races as a spectator this season that teams didn't have to look far to find her. Especially Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, whose tie with its former driver was strengthened by her engagement to a crewmember.
Those factors led to talks culminating in last week's agreement reuniting Fisher and D&R for Sunday's IndyCar Series race at Kentucky Speedway. As much as the IRL's first female pole winner is tempted to look down the road, she's content just being back and with the team where she was the series' most popular driver from 2001-03 -- right before Danica Patrick hit the scene.
"I just looked at all the opportunities out there," said Fisher, 25, who will drive the No. 5 Honda. "Obviously, if there was a chance to get back in an Indy car, I would definitely do it. I saw opportunities on the stock car side, but I'm just looking forward to getting back in an Indy car."
Fisher will make her first IRL start since finishing 21st in the 2004 Indy 500 in a one-off deal with Kelley Racing. She started 13 races last year in NASCAR's West Region series driving a Chevrolet co-owned by Nextel Cup Series team owner Richard Childress.
Much of Fisher's profile was built with D&R from 2002-03, when she made North American open-wheel history by claiming the Kentucky pole with a track-record speed of 221.390 mph that still stands. Fisher also posted the IRL's two best finishes by a woman while with Walker Racing, a second to Sam Hornish Jr. at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2000 and a third at Kentucky in '01.
Think her return at Kentucky is merely coincidence?
"She's always done well at Kentucky, and this is a good opportunity to see what happens," said Dennis Reinbold, who co-owns the team with former driver Robbie Buhl. "If we get a good starting and finishing position, we'll take it. But we don't want to set our expectations too high."
Fisher is philosophical, a trait built from past IRL struggles and an eye-opening season at NASCAR's grass-roots level. As fun as it was, she learned how differently closed-wheel cars operate from Indy cars and that you pay tougher dues.
Yet Fisher feels smarter and more mature for the experience, which she believes will pay off down the road. She still talks with Childress and won't rule out another NASCAR run if sponsorship comes together.
"You never know," she said. "Stock cars aren't something you just jump in and run up front. They rely on driver feedback, and I'm good at that.
"But you've got to work your way up and learn what the cars want. ... You don't bend Indy cars like you can stock cars, and the difference in driving them is more stamina vs. upper-body strength."
For all the pleasantries between Fisher and D&R, the possibility of her return didn't develop until she expressed her desire to race to fiance Andy O'Gara, a D&R mechanic and son of team manager John O'Gara. D&R needed a driver for Kentucky, and the process began.
Fisher will get her first test Thursday and is eager to see how she stacks up despite the time away.
"I'm not looking at getting more than just good laps and consistency," she said. "I'd love a top-10, but that's not the expectation of my team. I just want to get back in the hunt. To step back and prepare was fun, and this weekend is a fun experience I'm glad to take."
TEXT OF INFO BOX BEGINS HERE
*What: Meijer Indy 300, 12th of 14 IRL IndyCar Series events
*When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
*Where: Kentucky Speedway, Sparta
*2005 winner: Scott Sharp
GRAPHIC, B/W, Karl Gelles, USA TODAY, Source: USA TODAY research (Diagram); PHOTO, B/W, Morry Gash, AP