Patrick wins pole for Nationwide race

NASCAR’s much-talked about driver Danica Patrick has given race fans much to talk about in winning her first NASCAR pole position. She claimed the top spot for Saturday’s Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway.

A day after being involved in a frightening accident racing in a Sprint Cup Series qualifying race, Patrick answered with the day’s best lap of 182.741 mph in the JR Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet, becoming only the second woman to ever win a NASCAR national series pole position and the first since Shawna Robinson in 1994.

Patrick set the fast lap with 15 of the 50 cars to go in qualifying around the 2.5-mile Daytona high banks and had to wait out some strong competition, including her Sprint Cup Series team owner Tony Stewart, who is the four-time defending champion of this race, and her Nationwide Series team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Last year’s Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne came closest to knocking her off the top spot and will start alongside her.

“You can’t think of two bigger names to be on the front row to be honest with you,’’ said Elliott Sadler, who qualified third and will start right behind Patrick.

For her part, Patrick modestly downplayed her part in the achievement – reminding reporters that qualifying at this particular track is more about the car’s capabilities than the driver’s skill. Instead she said she was most proud of winning the pole for her veteran crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who despite a lot of success at Daytona, had never won the pole for this race.

“This is something (Eury Jr.) wanted, so for me to push the pedal and turn the wheel and get that done feels really good,’’ Patrick said, acknowledging the difference in emotion and fortune between Thursday’s hard crash and Friday’s headline-grabbing feat.

“I was thinking how disappointing the end of the day was yesterday and how happy you can be 24 hours later. It’s a good turn of events and mostly, I’m just happy for Tony. It’s always good to have something to bring your spirits up and when you are fast at places like this, it gives people more incentive to work with you, too. Hopefully it will open up some opportunities during the race if I need them, too.’’

Judging by their comments after qualifying, Patrick’s competitors consider her a legitimate contender in the race, not just a qualifying sensation.

“In the last 24 months, I’d say she is by far the most improved driver we have on the circuit,’’ Sadler said. “Last July, that was kind of her breakthrough race as far as I’m concerned as far as drafting and feeling comfortable racing with her.’’

Echoed Bayne, “That’s a good kick in the butt right there for her to be starting on pole in (the) first race of the season when she’s running the full season.

“I think she’s got a good chance for making SportsCenter, that’s for sure,’’ said Bayne with a laugh. “The more eyeballs, the more people are watching us. It’s good for the sport all the way around.’’

It’s certainly a positive way to kick off her first full-time Nationwide Series season and a good way to help earn the respect of her competition. Many drivers competing in Saturday’s Nationwide race will be competing alongside her in Sunday’s Daytona 500, too.

“Any time you show you have a fast car, it’s encouraging for people to want to help you,’’ Patrick said. “You always want to be with the fastest car possible. And if I’m left alone, someone will say I want to hook up with that fast car and that earns you some respect and credibility. My job is to show them I’m good to work with.’

“And any (driver) that sits on the pole is expected to do well because they have one of the fastest cars.’’