Despite weight of history, NASCAR's first lady in good spot entering Daytona 500
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Historic feats are becoming just another day at the office for 30-year-old Danica Patrick. And her offices tend to be some of the largest venues in sports.
On Sunday, Patrick became the first woman in history to win the pole position for NASCAR’s biggest race, guaranteeing her a spot in the upcoming Daytona 500.
In 2005, Patrick was the first woman to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500, and her 2009 third-place finish in open-wheel’s biggest race is still the high mark for a woman. She is the only woman to win a major open-wheel race, taking the trophy at IndyCar’s race in Motegi, Japan in 2008.
A year ago Patrick won the pole position for the Nationwide Series, the first time a woman had started first in a NASCAR-sanctioned race here.
Patrick’s effort Sunday gives her another entry in racing’s history books, but more immediately the headlines, spotlight and worldwide attention with a full week of hype about the sport’s most coveted pole position leading up to NASCAR’s Great American Race.
“I think when pressure’s on, when the spotlight is on, I do feel it ultimately ends up becoming my better moments, my better races, better results and I don’t know why that is,” Patrick said.
“I just understand that if you put the hard work before you go out there, that you can have a little bit of peace of mind knowing you’ve done everything you can and just let it happen.
“First and foremost, I grew up with good values and good goals,” said Patrick, who is the first Rookie of the Year candidate to win the Daytona 500 pole since Jimmie Johnson in 2002.
“I was brought up to be the fastest driver not the fastest girl and that was instilled in me very young, from the beginning.
“Then I feel like thriving in those moments when the pressure is on has been a help for me. I’ve also been lucky in my career to be with good teams and have good people around me.
“For those reasons I’ve been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things. I really just hope I don’t stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make.”
The significance of the day was not lost on three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, who will start alongside Patrick on the front row and missed the pole position by only a few hundredths of a second.
Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, was third fastest, followed by Patrick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Ryan Newman and owner/driver Tony Stewart.
“It’s great to be a part of history,” Gordon said. “I can say I’m the fastest guy today.
“She comes into this with racing background, with tremendous amount of exposure and momentum and just popularity that we’ve never seen before, especially for a female driver. So for her to follow that up and start the season off with a pole that’s especially impressive.”
Then he added with a grin, “I’m glad I didn’t win the pole; that would have messed that story up. I’m proud to be on the front row side-by-side with Danica.”
And for all the excitement, Patrick’s result Sunday was hardly a surprise. Her No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS was fastest in practice this week and among the quickest during a test last month at Daytona International Speedway.
In the moments after she climbed out of her car following qualifying she was quick to credit her Stewart-Haas Racing team for its preparation in an especially busy off-season complicated by developing and building NASCAR’s new Generation-6 race cars.
Initially, it was hard to tell if Patrick was more relieved or joyful despite the fact she ran the third quickest qualifying lap since NASCAR mandated restrictor plates on its two super speedways in 1988.
“I’m proud of all the hard work that goes into the pole car,” she said. “It’s not just turning left; it’s all the attention to detail they put in during the winter. And this just speaks volumes about Stewart-Haas Racing.”
Patrick’s crew chief Tony Gibson -- who was on the Daytona 500-winning crews of Gordon (1999) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2004) -- said he considered this one of the proudest moments of his career. And he was quick to praise Patrick, reminding people the car didn’t drive itself.
“I’m proud of her to carry that weight on her shoulders and she didn’t falter,” Gibson said.
After making headlines earlier this week discussing her romantic relationship with fellow Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year candidate Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Patrick has once again earned attention for her on-track work.
When asked if the couple made a fun “side bet” on who would qualify best, Stenhouse joked, “I don’t make bets I don’t think I can win.”
Good thing as he will start 12th.
Patrick’s team owner Tony Stewart told reporters, “I think Danica actually has two boyfriends. She has Ricky (Stenhouse) and she has Tony Gibson. They are almost holding hands in the shop when they’re there every day together.
“It’s good for me to see as an owner. I like to see that chemistry.”
Racing trailblazer Janet Guthrie held the previous best start for a woman in the 1980 Daytona 500 with an 18th place qualifying run. Her 11th-place finish in that race is still the best ever for a woman. Her pair of ninth-place starts (in 1977 at Talladega, Ala. and Bristol, Tenn.) is the best for a woman in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.
“Fabulous, a great day for women in sports, for NASCAR, for Tony Stewart, and for Danica,” said Lyn St. James, who competed in three Indy 500s and was the first woman to win Indy’s Rookie of the Race award (1994).
“It's a reminder to everyone, not just in racing, that women are capable when talent, determination, preparation, and opportunity collide.
“It will also be very exciting and interesting to see how she runs in the 500. Could be another milestone. It will be interesting how the media and other competitors react to this all week.”
Patrick joked during her winner’s press conference that she had previously planned to take Monday and Tuesday off before the next scheduled on-track activity on Wednesday at Daytona.
But that’s not likely considering the weight of her achievement and the interest it has generated. All things she is well aware of -- and happy to oblige.
“This is a pretty big stage,” Patrick said. “There’s a lot of people that benefit from this and a lot of people see it. I feel like a lot of people win (with this) as far as the team, Tony (Stewart), GoDaddy, Hendrick (Motorsports, which supplies her team’s engines) and Chevy.”
It is certainly a good payoff for a long day of anticipation and nerves.
Patrick went out eighth of 45 cars that made qualifying laps on Sunday meaning she had to wait nearly two hours before finding out if her fast speed held.
And for much of the afternoon she and her Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Newman and Stewart were 1-2-3.
“They make me look smart, but I’m not,” Stewart joked. “I could not be more proud of what our guys did during the offseason. They worked really really hard a lot of really late nights.”
As for his driver, Stewart cautioned the loudest Danica naysayers and issued a vote of confidence.
“I believe in her, the team believes in her, our organization believes in her,” Stewart said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make her as consistent and fast every week. The thing I caution everybody is, everybody puts high expectations (on her). Since she’s got here (to NASCAR), everybody has put her under such as strong microscope.
“Nobody said, Tony Stewart is going to be a top-15 car every week the first or second year. Nobody cared. But everybody is so focused on what she’s going to do. You just strictly have to wait and see. It’s still a rookie year for her.
“But we feel like she’s got the tools and mindset to go out and do a good job each week.”
And so the star in her sponsor GoDaddy.com’s commercials during football’s Super Bowl, Patrick finds herself the center of the action in NASCAR’s Super Bowl.
“Today was a cool day,” Patrick said. “I’ve been lucky enough and very blessed in my career to have had a lot of really, really cool days. A lot of things that in a really long time, I can reflect on and be very grateful.”
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