Even outside Daytona, drivers, fans and media all take note of historic moment
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In the immediate aftermath of one of the biggest accomplishments ever recorded by a female driver in NASCAR’s premier series, all Danica Patrick wanted was one thing.
“I went to Cracker Barrel and I’m glad I ate the bacon, because it’s probably what is keeping me alive right now,” she quipped Sunday afternoon after winning the pole for the Daytona 500. “And the pole position, too. I need a sandwich really bad. I’m getting close to dinner anyway. Pole position was like a free diet.”
For the fist woman ever to win a pole in the Sprint Cup Series, dinner would have to wait. Following her historic qualifying day at Daytona International Speedway, Patrick sat for a satellite media tour that included interviews with “CBS This Morning,” “Good Morning America,” CNN, ESPN and local stations in Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Miami, Charlotte, Tampa and Las Vegas. Tuesday will bring another round of national media, including an appearance on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” program.
And then there are all the front pages, from the “You Go, Girl” headline screaming from the Daytona Beach newspaper to the lead story in USA Today. The historic proportions of Patrick’s pole run resonated well beyond the 2.5-mile speedway, capturing the attention of even casual sports fans and media outlets that don’t always focus on racing. And it all served to build more publicity for what is quickly becoming one of the more anticipated Daytona 500s in recent memory.
“Obviously, there’s a buzz around this,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer. “And that is more promotion for what I think is going to be an incredible Daytona 500 anyway, with all the other storylines that you have — the Gen-6 car, and how the car’s handling, and the styling, and how the guys like it. The feel-good story about the 26 car and Newtown. So there are all these really good stories that are out there, and this just layers on top of it. I think we’re really primed for a fantastic Daytona 500.”
Indeed, prior to Sunday the primary topic of conversation had been the more brand-identifiable Generation-6 Sprint Cup car, which is making its competitive debut in these Speedweeks. And the new Swan Racing team, which will have two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip behind the wheel, is running a vehicle which will honor victims of the shooting in Newtown, Conn. But once it became clear that Patrick’s No. 10 car would remain at the top of the scoring tower in qualifying, attention shifted to yet another history-making feat turned in by the 30-year-old native of Roscoe, Ill.
Patrick has broken barriers before in NASCAR, two years ago at Las Vegas turning in a fourth-place result in a Nationwide Series race that remains the highest finish ever by a female at the sport’s national level. Last year, she become the first woman to ever finish in the top 10 in final points in a national series. She’s even won a pole before, claiming the top starting spot for the Nationwide opener at Daytona one year ago. But none of that compares to earning the pole for the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest race.
“I think it’s a huge deal,” said Kevin Harvick, a former Daytona 500 winner who claimed the season-opening Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night. “… It’s a huge deal for our sport to have her on the front row for the Daytona 500. It definitely sets a new milestone for our sport. I think that’s pretty neat.”
Sunday marked the third time a female has claimed a top starting spot at NASCAR’s national level, following Patrick’s Nationwide pole at Daytona last year and Shawna Robinson’s in a Nationwide race in 1994 at Atlanta. Previously, the best starting spot by a woman in a Sprint Cup race was ninth, set by Janet Guthrie in 1977 at Talladega and Bristol. Although winning the pole for the Daytona 500 is no guarantee of success in the race — the last driver to win from there was Dale Jarrett in 2000 — starting first in NASCAR’s biggest event turned heads in Daytona and beyond.
“That’s a huge accomplishment,” said Patrick’s car owner, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. “It’s not like it’s been 15 or 20 years she’s been trying to do this. It’s her second trip to Daytona here in a Cup car. She’s made history in the sport. That’s stuff that we’re proud of being a part of with her. It’s something she should have a huge amount of pride in. It’s never been done. There’s only one person that can be the first to do anything. Doesn’t matter how many do it after you do, accomplish that same goal. The first one that does always has that little bit more significance to it because you were the first.”
That was certainly the case Sunday, as spectators atop Daytona’s Fan Deck robustly cheered Patrick as she posed for photos in front of the Coors Light Pole Winner banner in the garage area. With each race, she’s viewed less as a former open-wheel driver and more as someone whose present and future are in stock-car racing.
“She clearly has her own base that she brought to NASCAR. And I think there are many, many NASCAR fans that are gravitating to her and what she’s doing,” Phelps said. “She has a great attitude in terms of being competitive and wanting to win, which fans love. She can have a fiery personality, she can be charismatic and engaging. She’s obviously really starting to cultivate her own NASCAR fan base, which is great to see.”
Many of her fellow competitors clearly felt the same way, even though winning the pole for the Daytona 500 is as much — or more, depending on the viewpoint — about the car as it is the driver. Regardless, that didn’t detract from the historic implications of Sunday, when a driver who once broke gender barriers in open-wheel racing continued to do the same in NASCAR.
“For me it’s not about the color of your skin or your gender, it’s about your abilities. You have to prove that,” four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon said. “I think Danica’s a talented race car driver. She proved that by getting herself into IndyCar, doing what she did in IndyCar. She has taken on quite a task to take on stock cars that are completely foreign to her. I kind of admire somebody that’s willing to take that leap — no different than the way I look at Sam Hornish, Juan Pablo Montoya, any of the guys that have been driving open-wheel cars most of their career and then get in a stock car. It’s completely different. But I love people that are willing to take chances and challenge themselves. That’s more of the way that I look at Danica, not just accepting a female.”
“Obviously, for a female to sit on the pole for the Daytona 500, it’s huge,” veteran Jeff Burton added. “A lot of people want to see it. … Some people for whatever silly reason won’t like it. But the reality is, there’s no reason why a female can’t be competitive in this series. There’s just not. It’s just no reason. Whether she’s the one that will ultimately have the success that a female can or not, I don’t know. No one else does. But I just don’t see any reason why a female can’t be as successful as male in racing. I’ve always believed that.”
In NASCAR, where performance is everything, results are paramount. Toward that end, Patrick showed marked improvement toward the end of last season in both her Nationwide and Sprint Cup cars, and was among the fastest drivers in January testing at Daytona well before she came to Speedweeks. In some of her competitors’ minds, that progress gave more credence to Sunday’s accomplishment.
“We watched Danica get better every week,” Waltrip said. “At Phoenix last fall she was racing for a top-10 finish with the big boys. And so nothing she does on the track surprises me. I just hope people respect that. This is not easy. Even sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500, you’ll hear all the drivers get out and say, ‘I didn’t do nothing. Anybody could do this.’ But you’ve got to give that crew chief input. You’ve got to tell him when it’s scrubbing the road. And then you’ve got to go out there and make that perfect lap. She deserves some credit. The car deserves more. But she’s getting right where she needs to be. I know she can make a lot of heads turn in 2013. I’m sure it will be big in the whole world of sports about Danica on the pole at Daytona.”
Of course, there were also some who pointed out that for drivers, qualifying day is among the easiest parts of Speedweeks, which also includes a pair of 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday that will serve as a truer warm-up for the Daytona 500. “Every year we come down here, qualifying day feels like the biggest day ever,” said reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski. “And when you leave the weekend, no one remembers.”
Odds are, this time they will.
“There’s a lot that goes into getting her in that car and winning the pole,” Phelps said. “… But it’s greater than that. It’s greater than that for the sport. She continues to break new ground in our rich history. I think it’s something she’ll continue to do as she gets more seat time in this new Gen-6 car. And hopefully we’ll have more great things to talk about in the future from a competition standpoint. She obviously has an amazing fan base, and a sizeable one and an engaged one. It will obviously become more and more engaged as she continues to have these milestones on the track.”
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