Danica Patrick, the first woman ever to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500, made more auto-racing history on Sunday.
Patrick, in her first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, claimed the pole for next Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 and became the first woman to win a pole for any race in Sprint Cup history.
Patrick turned a lap of 196.434 mph in her Stewart-Haas Chevrolet, the third-fastest qualifying speed at Daytona in the restrictor-plate era and edged Jeff Gordon’s 196.292 in a Chevy for the top starting spot in the 55th Daytona 500.
“I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl,” said Patrick, who has made just 10 Sprint Cup starts since beginning the transition to NASCAR from the open-wheel IndyCar Series in 2010.
“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, 30, shattered the previous record for top starting spot by a female NASCAR Sprint Cup series driver held by Janet Guthrie, who twice started ninth at Talladega and at Bristol in 1977. The previous best starting position for a female in the Daytona 500 was 18th by Guthrie in 1980.
The only other female to win a NASCAR national series pole was Shawna Robinson in a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Atlanta in 1994. A year ago, Patrick won the pole for the Nationwide race at Daytona but finished 38th after crashing. And she finished 38th in her Daytona 500 debut in 2012.
Winning the pole is no guarantee of Daytona success. The last pole winner to win the Daytona 500 was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
But Patrick’s achievement on Sunday transcends merely winning a pole. Patrick, who has known more success off the track for her marketing appeal and 12 Super Bowl commercials, can prove she can be as formidable in a racing suit as she is posing in a swimming suit for Sports Illustrated.
And, with NASCAR looking to fill seats and attract television audiences, she can bring more attention to the sport than any advertising campaign could dream of.
“I think it’s really exciting,” said Pat Warren, president of Kansas Speedway, where Patrick won a pole in an IndyCar race in 2005. “As a guy who has daughters, it’s exciting for me to see a woman earn a pole at the Daytona 500. It signifies, not necessarily the beginning of a new era in the sport, but certainly a new opportunity.
“It will make a lot people pay attention to the sport, at least this week with the Daytona 500, which gets more attention than just about anything else we do. It probably helps because you have an icon, a certain Hall of Famer in Jeff Gordon on the front row next to her, and you have the newest driver to run a full series — her and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. there’s an interesting personal story there as well. The first woman to win a pole is huge.”
Indeed, the first few days of Speedweeks at Daytona came with the confirmation last week by Patrick and fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Stenhouse that they are in a romantic relationship.
But she was all business on the track on Sunday in becoming the first rookie to win the Daytona pole since Jimmie Johnson in 2002.
Even though Patrick’s best finish in 10 career Sprint Cup races in 2011-12 was 17th, and she has just one top-five finish in 61 career Nationwide starts, she was considered a threat for the pole after turning the fastest laps in practice on Saturday.
As the eighth driver in the session, she had to wait about two hours as 37 other drivers tried to knock her off the top spot. Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, was the only other driver who eclipsed 196 mph on the 2.5-mile superspeedway and claimed the other guaranteed spot in next week’s 500. The rest of the field will be determined in duel qualifying races on Thursday.
“It’s great to be part of history,” Gordon said. “I can say I was the fastest guy today.”
Patrick raced part-time in NASCAR during 2009 and 2010 while racing competing in the open-wheel Indy Car series. In 2005, she finished fourth in the Indianapolis 500 — the best finish ever by a woman in the history of the race at the time — and led 19 laps, the first woman to lead at Indy. In 2008 she became the only woman to win an Indy Car race at Motegi, Japan, her only win in 115 IndyCar starts.
While Patrick has struggled in stock cars, her Cup car co-owner Tony Stewart never doubted her ability.
“You could tell watching her in the (IndyCars), you could see things, having run those cars ” Stewart said. “She’s got talent. To come here and have that kind of composure and to run a lap as smooth as she did that’s a huge accomplishment.
“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 in a Cup car. She’s made history in the sport. 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.”
Gordon was glad to play his part.
“I’ve always been a big believer in what’s good for the sport is good for all of us,” Gordon said, “so this is great for the sport. The rest of us will benefit from that, as well. I’m proud to be on the front row this year side-by-side with Danica.
“I’m glad I didn’t win the pole, or we would have messed that story all up.”