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Danica Patrick Long Beach Grand PrixThe 2009 annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach roared into town last weekend, with household names like Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti blazing through the streets in finely-tuned ethanol burning dragsters. The turns were tight and the straightaways fast, which resulted in a few pile-ups and a fiery crash or two.

In her autobiography, Danica  said a race in Long Beach seven years ago was the turning point in a career that ultimately made her one of the nation’s most popular race-car drivers. Her win in that pro/celeb race eventually led her to the IndyCar Series in 2005, where overnight she became a fan favorite after nearly winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie.

Danica and the rest of IndyCar’s drivers haven’t been able to race in the Long Beach grand prix in recent years because of a split in the U.S. open-wheel racing series. Last year, Danica, 27, visited the event as a spectator, hours after her IndyCar victory at Motegi, Japan, where she became the first woman in history to win a major U.S.-sanctioned open-wheel race.

The sport is reunited now and IndyCar drivers were welcomed back to Long Beach for the 35th annual grand prix, which for thousands of fans is as much a spring party as an auto race.

Due to a frustrating qualifying session on Saturday, which included spinning out and hitting a wall, the 5-foot, 2-inch 100 pound Danica ended the first day in Long Beach in a disappointing 22nd place.

On Sunday, however, huge crowds watched as a clean opening stint kept Danica free of the crashes and carnage unfolding in front of her, and with a combination of well-timed pit stops and a focused, determined effort, she moved to the lead pack towards the end of the race.

A string of fast laps kept pressure on the drivers in front of Danica’s Motorola-sponsored Dallara Honda, allowing her to move up 18 spots and secure a stunning 4th place at the checkered flag, just one second behind AGR teammate Tony Kanaan. Dario Franchitti’s Target car took the big prize.

Danica rode the wave of momentum from Long Beach into a fine 5th place finish at the Kansas Speedway yesterday. She jumps five spots to 5th in the overall standings.

Wherever Danica races, the driving sensation’s popularity is displayed by fans wearing her colors and lining up to take a photo next to her image on the side of a trailer.

Next up for Danica – the Indy 500 (oh, and the June cover of Shape Magazine!)

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