Danica Patrick wins pole for Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick is accustomed to firsts.

As a female race car driver, Patrick has been fortunate to be not only a trailblazer, but due to her marketability the 30-year-old driver has been fortunate to have the best equipment in both the NASCAR and IndyCar Series.

She was the first female to win a race in IndyCar. She won the first pole for a female driver in the Nationwide Series at Daytona last February and posted the first top-five finish in any of NASCAR’s top touring divisions with her fourth-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011.

Sunday was no exception. With a lap of 196.434 mph, Patrick drove her No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevy SS to the pole position for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500 (Noon ET on FOX).

Still, as Patrick says, she “was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl.”

“That was instilled in me from very young, from the beginning,” Patrick said. “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.”

Most of her fellow competitors share her sentiment. Once the helmet goes on, there’s no distinction between genders or races.

“For me it’s not about the color of your skin or your gender, it’s about your abilities,” said Jeff Gordon, who will share the front row with Patrick. “You have to prove that. 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 stockcars 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.”

Jimmie Johnson was the last rookie to win the pole for the Daytona 500 when he posted the fastest lap in 2002. The five-time champion feels Patrick’s achievement is “a great milestone for the sport.”

“It’s great for her and a great kick-start to the year for everyone within NASCAR,” Johnson said.

Kasey Kahne believes having Patrick on the pole is “a big deal” for both the driver and the team. Kahne also believes the opportunity to start from the front row will be a tremendous boost of confidence for the rookie.

“She’s got a fast car,” Kahne said. “She’s got great teammates. She can feel really good about her chances in the race to have a good run. She’s got a good engine package — cause I know all about that. We have the same one.

“You’ve got to give her credit (for) how far she’s come in her career to where she is today. Today is all about the race car and the ability to get the around the track.”

NASCAR defending champion Brad Keselowski was more cautious than his fellow drivers in discussing the moment.

“I think when I saw her tracker and how much she pulled down the straightaway I was pretty damn impressed by the power she has,” he said.

“Like I said, this is the least important part of the weekend. Thursday and Sunday are way more important.”

And what does the think of this as a milestone?

“I think it will give us a temporary hype but every year we come down here and qualifying day seems like the biggest day ever when you do it but when you leave the weekend nobody remembers.”

For Patrick, who earned her first Sprint Cup pole in just her 11th career start, it was a relief knowing that she’ll be locked into the event.

“It’s really amazing how much effort is put into a qualifying car for Daytona, for the 500, and really only the front row is what sticks for Sunday,” Patrick said.

“It’s nice that all that hard work can pay off and that we can give ourselves that opportunity to lead the pack down into the tri oval for the green flag of the Daytona 500.”

What next?

For four-time champion Jeff Gordon, there are few things on the NASCAR bucket list left to accomplish.

He leads current drivers with 87 Cup victories. He’s earned three Daytona 500s. He won the first Brickyard 400 — and three more — the most of any NASCAR competitor.

However, Gordon has yet to win a title under the Chase for the Sprint Cup format. And as the years wind down his opportunities are becoming fewer.

“I’ve come close in ’07, but we got beat,” said Gordon, who lost to his teammate Johnson that year. “Obviously to me, there’s only one thing left, and that’s to win the Sprint Cup championship.

“What I’ve realized as I get older, the things that matter to me, I like to make other people proud, people that put a lot of effort into our race team, my parents along the way, crew chiefs like Ray Evernham, my wife, my kids. Those are the things that motivate me, drive me to work harder and accomplish goals that I haven’t been able to accomplish.”

While Gordon would certainly appreciate a fifth Cup championship, the 41-year-old racer would also enjoy the opportunity to share the experience with his crew chief Alan Gustafson and his family — which came along after he won his last title in 2001.

“Alan is one of the best if not the best crew chiefs out there right now,” Gordon said. “I think he deserves to be a championship caliber crew chief or recognized crew chief. I love taking my kids and family to Victory Lane and experience the spoils of great accomplishments like that.”

Secret weapon

It was not by chance that Stewart-Haas Racing placed all three cars in the top five for next Sunday’s Daytona 500.

With the introduction of the new Generation 6 car, it certainly helps when your team has its own wind tunnel at its disposal. Since 2008, when Gene Haas opened Windshear, his teams have enjoyed access to the 180-mph rolling road full-scale wind tunnel.

“We use it religiously, it’s been a big help,” Gibson said. “We’re in there like two times a week since we started working on the car.”

Numbers game

2: Laps in the restrictor-plate era were faster than the one Danica Patrick ran on Sunday. Kenny Schrader posted the laps in 1989 and 1990.

4: Times Jeff Gordon has started on the front row for the Daytona 500.

35: Years Janet Guthrie held the record for the top qualifying female (ninth) in NASCAR’s top division.

Say what?

When Danica Patrick was asked about her game plan for the Daytona 500 given the precarious nature of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited event, she replied, “Jesus take the wheel. … Sorry, it is Sunday and I didn’t go to church today.”