LONG BEACH, Calif. &

When Danica Patrick finally got her first win, it was late on a Saturday night back home in the United States &

not exactly ideal timing for one of the most historic victories in open-wheel racing.

And although the victory came an ocean away, in Japan, the 26-year-old Patrick wasn't complaining.

"I was excited for a little while, shocked for a little bit and mostly just relieved to get that done," Patrick said Monday, still relishing her win at Twin Ring Motegi, the first victory by a woman in major open-wheel racing. "I'm not shooshing it aside, but I'm definitely glad that one is over."

The win came in her fourth full season and 50th career start in the IRL IndyCar Series, and she had spent much of her time before this answering questions about when she'd earn her first victory.

Not any more.

"I don't let people dictate how I'm supposed to feel or how I'm supposed to do," she said Monday in a teleconference. "But it's nice not to have to answer any questions about when and how and why it hasn't happened.

"They say the first win is the hardest to get, which I agree with," Patrick said. "It's even more realistic now with having a win, and hopefully more will come now."

Patrick, who had a relatively sleepless 12-hour flight Sunday from Japan and watched the last half of the Champ Car race on the streets of Long Beach, is part of the newly unified open-wheel series. Along with a pair of fellow Americans &

19-year-old Graham Rahal and 21-year-old Marco Andretti, both drivers from great racing families with loads of potential &

she carries the series' hopes.

"People are finding out about IndyCar more," she said. "A lot of people are affected, it's not just me. I hope it's growing, and that's the idea. We're all working hard to capitalize on the great moments happening in the league, and this week it's me."

Rahal won on the street circuit earlier this month in St. Petersburg, Fla., becoming the youngest winner of a major open-wheel race. Andretti, the top IndyCar rookie in 2006, has shown signs of snapping out of a yearlong slump.

Now, Patrick, who three years ago ignited a national case of "DanicaMania" by leading laps and finishing fourth in the Indianapolis 500, is a winner.

Although it would have been nice for Patrick's first win to have come on home turf in America &

and in prime time &

there should be no more comparisons to tennis' Anna Kournikova, who built a reputation based on glamour but never won a title, despite coming tantalizingly close several times.

Like Kournikova, Patrick has become nearly as well known for posing for magazines &

including this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue &

and her work as a commercial spokesman, as for her driving. But now she's not just another driver trying to find her niche.

"I'm definitely just part of a wave of women that are doing different things, great things, outside of the normal world," she said. "I don't think it's just me. I think it's just showing we're capable of anything, and vice versa. There's so much more gender crossover now than there ever has been. So I really just believe that I'm part of a really big picture."

It doesn't matter a bit that her victory in Motegi came by being the best driver on the track at conserving fuel. That was a great strategy by her Andretti Green Racing team, and smart driving by Patrick.

Patrick said she has taken to heart a lot of advice from former teammates such as Dario Franchitti, last year's Indy 500 and IndyCar champion, and current teammates Andretti and Tony Kanaan.

"I think the biggest thing that I've gained from my teammates, besides the obvious fact of great competition and always pushing me to a new level ... was the positive attitude," Patrick said. "My teammates always said things like, 'When you win your first race, when you win, this is what we're going to do.' And they always put that in my head.

"While I always believed it, it was nice to hear from guys like Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti."

Patrick finished a career-best seventh in the standings last year, her first with Andretti Green. Now, with her win, Patrick is third in the standings heading to Kansas Speedway next weekend, thoughts of a championship swirling in her head.

"I've always believed that it's victories that I needed to be really in championship contention," she said. "I'm a consistent driver by nature, so consistency is one of those things that wins you championships.

"But you don't win championships without winning some races. So, hopefully, we can do that this year, win some more and have a shot at it."

Patrick, reminded that her first victory is a milestone in open-wheel history, said that's just fine with her.

"You know, it's going to be one of those things that's remembered," she said. "It's a first and firsts are in the history books."

Now, Patrick would like to make even more history by becoming a consistent winner and a champion.

Nobody will convince her it can't be done.

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AP Sports Writer Steve Herman in Indianapolis contributed to this report.