DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Danica Patrick didn’t get the finish she was looking for, but at least this year she finished the Daytona 500 — and made history in the process.
After becoming the first woman to win a pole in the Sprint Cup Series — let alone the Great American Race — Patrick was competitive throughout the entire race and appeared destined to finish third before the field was scrambled on a last-lap wreck.
“I was in the top 10 all day long,” Patrick said. “So I can’t complain about that.
“I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say what could I have, should I have done to give myself that opportunity to win. I think that’s what I was feeling today, was uncertainty as to how I was going to accomplish that. There was plenty of time while you were cruising along. I was talking to Tony (Gibson, crew chief) and my spotter (Brandon Benesch) on the radio, ‘What do you see people doing? What’s working? What is not?’ I was thinking in the car, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I didn’t know what to do exactly.
“So I feel like maybe that’s just my inexperience? Maybe that’s me not thinking hard enough? I don’t know. Getting creative enough? I’m not sure.”
Still, Patrick’s eighth-place finish is the best for a woman in the Daytona 500. She barely missed the record of sixth-place set by Janet Guthrie in the Volunteer 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 28, 1977. She also became the first female to lead a green-flag lap in NASCAR’s top division on Sunday when she passed Michael Waltrip during the restart on Lap 90. Patrick took the point again on Lap 127. She led a total of five circuits.
Guthrie led five laps under caution in the Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway on Nov. 20, 1977.
“She made history today — and in fine fashion, too,” race winner Jimmie Johnson said.
Patrick was the top rookie finisher and starts the season seventh in the points standings.
Her performance in Daytona also will be a momentum builder when the tour moves to Phoenix International Raceway next weekend. Patrick had a solid run on that 1-mile oval last season before catching traffic and posting a year-high 17th-place finish.
“It was nice to run like we did at the end of the year last year with Texas and especially with Phoenix,” Patrick said. “I feel like it will give us a good baseline idea of how we need to set the car up. But it also is a new car, so we’ll have to adapt to that.
“Tony (Gibson) and I are still figuring out how we get the most out of me with new tires in a qualifying situation, things like that. We still have a lot of stuff to work on. But it was nice to have that race in Phoenix at the end of last year.”