NASCAR

Danica makes history at Daytona 500

Danica Patrick makes history during Daytona 500
Danica Patrick makes history during Daytona 500
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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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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.

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After becoming the first woman to win a pole in the Sprint Cup Series — let alone the Great American Race — Patrick was competitive throughout Sunday's race and appeared destined to finish third before the field was scrambled on a last-lap wreck. She finished eighth while Jimmie Johnson won Daytona for the second time.

“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 did an incredible job today, as well as an incredible job a number of times last year,” third-place finisher Mark Martin said. “There will be more of that to come. And it will be good for the sport.”

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Johnson, one of three heavyweight drivers who took their young daughters to meet Patrick — ''the girl in the bright green car'' — after she won the pole in qualifications, tipped his cap to her.

''I didn't think about it being Danica in the car,'' Johnson said. ''It was just another car on the track that was fast. That's a credit to her and the job she's doing.''

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.”

Patrick was clearly disappointed with her finish Sunday. When the race was on the line, she was schooled by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who made his last move and blocked any chance she had.

''Dale did a nice job and showed what happens when you plan it out, you drop back and get that momentum. You are able to go to the front,'' Patrick said. ''I think he taught me something. I'm sure I'll watch the race and there will be other scenarios I see that can teach me, too.''

Earnhardt was impressed, nonetheless.

''She's going to make a lot of history all year long. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress,'' said Earnhardt Jr. ''Every time I've seen her in a pretty hectic situation, she always really remained calm. She's got a great level head. She's a racer. She knows what's coming. She's smart about her decisions. She knew what to do today as far as track position and not taking risks. I enjoy racing with her.''

“I'm honored,” she said. “But, again, these are things that just happen along the way. I'm on the quest to be the best driver, run up front, get to Victory Lane. These things happen and I'm proud, but they're not the ultimate goal."

Her only mistakes were on pit road, where she got beat on the race back to the track, and on the final lap, when she was running third but got snookered by the veterans and faded to eighth. That's going to stick with Patrick for some time.

Still, Patrick became the first woman in history to lead laps in the 500, another groundbreaking moment for Patrick, who as a rookie in 2005 became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and now is the 13th driver to lead laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500.

Her only mistakes were on pit road, where she got beat on the race back to the track, and on the final lap, when she was running third but got snookered by the veterans and faded to eighth. That's going to stick with Patrick for some time.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tagged: Danica Patrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson

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