First female winner of the Daytona 500 pole not deterred by odds
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- We know Danica Patrick is fast and confident, and that her Stewart-Haas Racing team is experienced and prepared. And in the midst of all the hard-earned recognition and support for the first woman to win the pole position for NASCAR’s biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500, there remains a more important question: Can Danica Patrick actually win the Daytona 500?
“Yeah, absolutely,’’ Patrick said Friday, her team so confident in the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet that she didn’t even participate in Saturday’s final Daytona 500 practice session.
Patrick’s veteran crew chief, Tony Gibson, who has worked on four Daytona 500-winning cars, was even more adamant that she could win.
“I have 100 percent confidence in her skills and her ability,’’ Gibson said. “She’s got the talent and she’s got the ability and she’s already proven in the Nationwide Series. From what I’ve seen on the speedway stuff, she definitely gets the respect and people know she’s fast.
"She can draft, she knows how the air works -- she gets a lot of that from IndyCar. So I have 100 percent confidence that she can win the Daytona 500."
It’s interesting how someone can be such a favorite to win the pole position -- as Patrick was in this case -- but dismissed as a favorite to win the race.
Despite pacing the practices and winning the top starting position, most of the Las Vegas odds-makers favor dozens of drivers over her.
“The fastest car doesn’t always win this race,’’ veteran Mark Martin explained bluntly. And he knows, having gone 0-for-28 in the Daytona 500 even after earning back-to-back front row starting positions in 2009 and 2010.
The race has been won from the pole only nine times in its 54-year history; Dale Jarrett did it last in 2000. Year after year, the late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt came to Daytona Speedweeks and collected trophy after trophy in the races leading into the 500. But it took the greatest restrictor plate driver in NASCAR history 18 tries to finally win the big one.
Patrick’s team owner and fellow competitor on Sunday, Tony Stewart, is winless in 14 attempts despite having cars so fast that he’s only started farther back than the fourth row three times. He’s won the July Sprint Cup race four times at Daytona, has a pair of IROC wins and on Saturday hoisted the Nationwide race trophy for the seventh time in the last nine years.
This will only be Patrick’s second Daytona 500 start -- she finished 38th last year -- but experience isn’t necessarily a sure predictor, either. No one has run more miles (13,895) in the Daytona 500 than two-time Sprint Cup champ Terry Labonte, yet he remains winless in 30 tries.
Patrick has been careful and quick to credit her Stewart-Haas Racing crew for preparing her pole-winning car, downplaying her effort in taking the first big prize of the Sprint Cup Series season.
But her goal was not only to start the race out front, but to finish there. As she is fond of reminding people, she was raised to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl. And she should not be underestimated.
One absolute in her career is that the larger the stage, the better she performs. She became the first woman to led the Indianapolis 500 in her rookie year (2005) and her third place finish there in 2009 is the best ever for a woman.
Despite the increased attention, raised expectations and extra demands on her time after her trail-blazing achievement this week, she is walking about the Daytona International Speedway carefree and smiling.
“I think she can handle this,’’ Stewart joked.
Several of the very drivers she hopes to best on Sunday have brought their young daughters by to meet Patrick this week. She said Carl Edwards told her that his daughter thought she was a “mythical creature that didn’t exist.”
"She's breaking this sport into a whole new territory, and I think that's fantastic,’’ said Jeff Gordon, who will start alongside the front row with Patrick.
“When my daughter wants to meet somebody, whether it's Danica or Minnie Mouse, I'm going to do all I can to make that happen, and that tells you what kind of relevance and impact they're making. I think that's fantastic, and I hope to see more of it."
Patrick’s accomplishment has certainly been a boost to NASCAR, but also to the development of future female drivers. The more attention she gets, the more sponsorship she can bring. And that results in a better team and a contending car, which have ultimately put her in the best position to win of any woman ever.
Janet Gurthrie, who set the previous best qualifying marks for a woman 36 years ago, spoke at length about the significance Patrick’s feat in an op-ed piece for The Washington Post this week.
“The explanation lies in the extremely expensive nature of the sport,’’ Guthrie wrote. “Patrick is the first woman who has been able to summon the mega-dollars necessary to field a front-running car, and last Sunday she made the most of it.”
But it’s this Sunday that counts most. And Patrick recognizes that.
“I know I’m inexperienced, I know that I’m a rookie out there,’’ she said. “I will do the best job I can and I believe I do have a chance to win.’’
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