Danica Patrick backed up her fast practice speeds during NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500 qualifying on Sunday, taking the pole position for the race.
By Lee Spencer FoxSports
Danica Patrick will start from the pole position in the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500 (live on FOX on Sunday, Feb. 24, at noon ET).
Patrick became the first woman in NASCAR’s premier division to win a pole and the 11th consecutive first-time pole-sitter for the Great American Race at Daytona International Speedway.
Prior to Speedweeks, Stewart-Haas Racing hedged its bets by purchasing the owners points from the No. 49 team to secure Patrick’s position in the 2013 Daytona 500.
But as Patrick proved on Sunday, the odds were in her favor.
“I was a little bit nervous,” Patrick said. “It’s all about just getting the shifts right and being smooth and, more than anything, you’re trying to hug the line as much as possible, trying to not steer too much. Sometimes the car wants to track up and move up the track a little bit and you’ve got to pull it down, but you also don’t want to hit the apron. So it’s not like you go out there and lock your arms, and it just stays there.
“It’s not that perfect of an arc around the corner. You’re just trying to be smooth and run a nice line that doesn’t scrub any speed. Then the question always is, if the car feels like it’s bound up and wanting to be freed up, do you let it up off the corner and run more distance on the exit, or do you keep it pinched down and run a shorter distance?”
Team owner Tony Stewart was impressed by his rookie’s performance. Overall, the Stewart-Haas Racing contingent was first, fourth (Ryan Newman) and fifth (Stewart) on the speed chart.
After comparing Patrick’s line to his and Newman’s, Stewart quickly understood where the driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevy SS gained her advantage.
“She did a really good job of carrying speed off of Turn 2, and where she made up her time was down the backstretch,” Stewart said. “Carrying the speed off of 2 is a big key to that. All three of us ran great laps. I don’t know if she did something a little different or whether it was (crew chief) Tony Gibson, but as a package they did a really good job.
“She runs so smooth. We talked about it two years ago when we ran the Nationwide race together, I said that she was probably one of the easiest people to push around the racetrack. She runs such a smooth line, and that’s what you have to do here to carry speed here like she did. She did a good job. She did her job behind the wheel for sure.”
Patrick, 30, earned the pole for the Nationwide Series race in last year’s season-opener at Daytona. On Sunday, she duplicated the feat with a lap of 196.434 mph in just her 11th start in the Sprint Cup Series.
Patrick made her Cup debut at Daytona International Speedway in last year’s 500. Her NASCAR debut came in the Nationwide Series here in 2010. Patrick ran 12 additional races that first year as she balanced a full-time IndyCar schedule over the next two seasons. In 2011, Patrick scored her first and only career top-five finish when she took fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Her effort earned the distinction of being the best finish by a female in NASCAR’s top three touring divisions.
“Back in the IndyCar days, it was all about the shorter distance, because you had so much power. But in these cars we’re at terminal velocity, it feels like, for the whole lap for the most part,” Patrick said. “So you don’t want to scrub too much speed, and they’re so much heavier to get going again. So it’s a little bit different from what I’m used to.”
Last year, when she moved to NASCAR full time, Patrick finished 10th in the Nationwide Series and ran 10 races in the Sprint Cup Series. Her best finish was 17th at Phoenix International Raceway in November.
This season, Patrick is competing full time for Stewart-Haas Racing and running for Rookie of the Year honors in Sprint Cup.
Jeff Gordon, who posted the second-fastest lap, complimented Patrick on her achievement.
"We all know how popular she is and what this will do for our sport," Gordon said. "I've always been a believer in what's good for the sport is good for all of us. I'm proud to be on the front row with Danica."
Patrick has made history before — as a woman and a racer, in Indianapolis and Japan. The spotlight is nothing new. But never has it been this bright before.
''I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl,'' she said. ''That was instilled in me from very young, from the beginning. Then I feel like thriving in those moments, where the pressure's on, has also been a help for me. I also feel like I've been lucky in my career to be with good teams and have good people around me. I don't think any of it would have been possible without that.
''For those reasons, I've been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things. I really just hope that I don't stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make. We are excited to do it.''
Patrick went out eighth in the qualifying session, then had to wait about two hours as 37 fellow drivers tried to take her spot. Only four-time Cup champion Gordon even came close to knocking her off. Gordon was the only other driver who topped 196 mph in qualifying.
The rest of the field will be set in duel qualifying races Thursday.
However the lineup unfolds, all drivers will line up behind Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet SS.
And she knows her latest achievement will mean more public relations work.
The routine is nothing new for Patrick, who was the first woman to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500. She finished third in 2009, the highest finish in that illustrious race for a woman. And she became the only woman to win an IndyCar race when she did it in Japan in 2008.
Hardly anyone witnessed that victory.
Leading the field to the green flag in NASCAR's showcase event should be must-watch television.
''That's a huge accomplishment,'' Stewart said. ''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.''
Even before her fast lap Sunday, Patrick was the talk of Speedweeks. Not only did she open up about her budding romance with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but she also was considered the front-runner for the pole after leading practice sessions Saturday.
And she didn't disappoint.
She kept her car at or near the bottom of the famed track and gained ground on the straightaways, showing lots of power from a Hendrick Motorsports engine.
The result surely felt good for Patrick, especially considering the former IndyCar driver has mostly struggled in three NASCAR seasons. Her best finish in 10 Cup races is 17th, and she has one top-five in 58 starts in the second-tier Nationwide Series.
She raced part-time in 2010 and 2011 while still driving a full IndyCar slate. She switched solely to stock cars last season and finished 10th in the Nationwide standings.
She made the jump to Sprint Cup this season and will battle Stenhouse for Rookie of the Year honors.
Starting out front in an unpredictable, 500-mile race doesn't guarantee any sort of result, but securing the pole will put her in the limelight for at least the rest of the week.
The previous highest female qualifier in a Cup race was Janet Guthrie. She started ninth at Bristol and Talladega in 1977.
''It's obviously a history-making event that will last a long, long time,'' Guthrie said, praising Patrick's feat. ''It's a different era, of course. Different times. I can't imagine what I would do with a spotter or somebody telling me how to drive. It's rather a different sport now. Back then, there was a much greater difference from the front of the field to the back.''
Guthrie received a lukewarm reception from fellow drivers back then.
Patrick was much more welcomed, undoubtedly because of her background and popularity.
She's comfortable being in the spotlight, evidenced by her racing career, her television commercials and her sudden openness about her personal life.
''When pressure's on and when the spotlight's on, I feel like it ultimately ends up becoming some of my better moments and my better races and better results,'' Patrick said. ''I just understand that if you put the hard work in before you go out there that you can have a little peace and a little peace of mind knowing that you've done everything you can and just let it happen.''