Danica's off to fast start in Daytona
On Saturday, Danica Patrick posted the fastest lap (196.220 mph) during the second qualifying practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500.
Understandably, even Patrick was relieved the conversation had evolved from her latest exploits with fellow driver and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and returned to racing.
“Well, I have always felt in my career that when things go well on the track, the media responds to it,” Patrick said.
Patrick is hoping there will be an equally positive response after qualifying on Sunday. In last year’s season opener in the Nationwide Series, Patrick put the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet on the pole at Daytona International Speedway.
Certainly, posting solid results during both Saturday practice sessions – she was third in the first session – will provide the 30-year-old Roscoe, Ill. native with a spark of confidence entering Daytona 500 time trials.
“I suppose being the fastest going into qualifying is as good as you could hope for,” Patrick said. “But I also understand that it’s a whole different day. We could go out there on the track and just for some reason not have as much speed as we had hoped for. We could be in an unfortunate situation with wind or weather, temperatures, clouds, so I understand that.
“We have done everything we can to prepare for it. We all feel pretty confident, but tomorrow is a different day.”
Still, Patrick isn’t discounting the potential of earning her first Sprint Cup pole on Sunday – even if it is in NASCAR’s premier race. But Patrick was quick to deflect the attention she earned in practice to the race team that brought a new car to Daytona instead of the one it tested in January.
“There are other races throughout the year that as a driver you feel maybe more pleased or proud of yourself to get,” Patrick said. “This one is a whole team effort. I understand. I know I don’t give much credit to myself about driving and turning left. And that is true it’s very much about the car and the engine.
“It is a team effort. I understand that the driver can make tiny little differences out there, be smooth and nail your shifts and being smooth with the wheel. The pole at Daytona is very much a team pole.”
Although Patrick doesn’t drive for team owner Rick Hendrick, the engines and chassis supplier for Stewart-Haas Racing said he would “love to see her on the pole” for next Sunday’s race.
“She sparks a lot of new fans, and it’s got my motor in it," Hendrick said with a laugh. "She's magical. You look at the Super Bowl, and she's all over the Super Bowl (in TV ads). She's a good little driver, and she does a lot for our sport. It would really be special if she could be on the front row."
Patrick’s crew chief Tony Gibson calls the qualifying process “nerve-wracking.” He opted to bring a different car that posted better numbers in the wind tunnel for the 500 to offer Patrick every possible advantage, particularly since the team doesn’t have a provisional to fall back on.
While Gibson was relieved with Patrick’s progress on Saturday, he realizes that anything can happen in Thurday’s qualifying races.
For now, Gibson will stick with his plan to “do our best to qualify in the top six to try to lock ourselves” into the race.
“Everyone has seen how treacherous the drafting and stuff is,” Gibson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Saturday. “It’s crazy for everybody right now. This drafting deal has changed quite a bit since last year. The bumpers don’t quite line up like they did, and the air is different between the cars now, so it’s thrown everybody for a little bit of a curve there on the drafting.
“We’ve seen some incidents over testing and again yesterday in (Sprint Unlimited) practice. It can get hairy at times. We’re in a little different box than a lot of people. We don’t have any points to fall back on. We got to get qualified in and get a good speed. So we’re putting all our efforts into qualifying and trying to get the best lap that we can so if something does happen in the 150s (Budweiser Duels) that we do have a good enough speed to fall back on.”
Although Stewart-Haas Racing purchased owner points for Patrick should qualifying be rained out, the driver is hoping to secure a position for the Great American Race on her own merit. For now, the team’s strategy is to earn one of the top six positions in time trials which would secure Patrick a position on the front row or spot 33 through 36 if she doesn’t finish in the top 15 of her qualifying race.
Considering there are only 45 cars entered for the Daytona 500, the odds are in Patrick’s favor.
“With the new qualifying scenario, I think it would be really nice for all of us to know we were in the race for Sunday,” Patrick said. “There are only a couple of extra cars, but it’s still a nice thing to know as a team.
“Being on the front row would lock in a front-row (position). Being in the top six would lock in a start, which both of those would be very good.”