Danica Patrick races for history
(CNN) — She says she was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl.
None of the boys were faster on Sunday.
Danica Patrick became the first woman to win the pole position for the Daytona 500, considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR, posting a lap of 196.434 mph.
She’ll start next Sunday’s “Great American Race” in the front row, on the inside part of the track. The polesitter begins the race with certain strategic advantages as well as the prestige of leading an elite pack.
Becoming the first woman to win a pole at any NASCAR top-division race is another milestone for a racer known for breaking barriers.
“I’ve heard stories about a kid, a boy or a girl, saying, ‘But mommy, daddy. That’s a girl that’s out there racing.’ And then they can have that conversation to say, ‘You can do anything you want to do and gender doesn’t matter.’ Your passion is what matters. And that’s cool,” Patrick told CNN’s Don Lemon on Sunday.
“When the pressure is on and when the spotlight is on, they ultimately become some of my better moments,” she said earlier.
Patrick, who was the favorite to win the pole, said she felt some nerves because of the high expectations.
“I feel more nervous when there is more on the line,” she said. “It was, ‘Just don’t make a stupid mistake.'”
She said that driving a qualifying lap at Daytona, where drivers shift gears three times then run the engine pretty much wide open, was 90% crew preparation and 10% driver.
Not so, said her crew chief, Tony Gibson, who said it’s an even split.
“I’m proud of her. She didn’t falter,” he said.
She will start her No. 10 GODADDY Chevrolet in the front row next week alongside Jeff Gordon, who ran a lap at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway at 196.292 mph in his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet.
“She runs so smooth, keeps such a smooth line and that’s what you have to do to carry speed here,” co-car owner and fellow driver Tony Stewart said.
A pole position does not guarantee success.
Only nine of the pole winners in the first 54 Daytona 500s won the race and no one has earned both victories since Dale Jarrett in 2000, NASCAR spokesman Scott Warfield said.
The rest of the field will be set in two qualifying races scheduled for Thursday.
Patrick and Gordon are guaranteed two of the 43 slots in the final lineup. But they go to the back of the pack if they wreck their cars in the qualifiers, or at any time before Sunday’s race, and have to switch to a backup car, Warfield said.
Patrick, 30, is in her first full year as a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver. Last year she made 10 Sprint Cup starts, qualifying no better than 23rd.
NASCAR says Patrick still qualifies as a rookie for the 2013 season and she’s the first rookie to win the Daytona 500 pole since Jimmie Johnson in 2002.
Before racing stock cars, Patrick raced open-wheel IndyCars for several years.
Patrick said winning a pole position in Kansas in 2005 was one of her top moments as an IndyCar driver. She also was the first woman to win a race in that series, in Japan in 2008, and was the first woman to ever lead a lap at the famed Indianapolis 500.
Patrick won a pole last year at Daytona in the Nationwide Series, NASCAR’s second division. She finished 38th in that race and in the Daytona 500 and she said on Sunday that she plans on competing in both races again next weekend.
Janet Guthrie previously held both the records for qualifying by a female driver. She qualified ninth for two races in 1977 and her best Daytona starting position was 18th in 1980.
Gordon, a three-time champion at the Daytona 500, welcomed Patrick to the front row.
“This is great from the sport and the rest of us will benefit from it,” he said. “I’m proud to sit on the front row with her.”
She also said that the wait to see if she had won the pole was made more agonizing because she had gone to work out as other drivers went one by one, trying to best her top lap.
Patrick told CNN that understanding the scope of her achievement “is something that happens down the road. In the moment, it’s about thinking about what I need to do for next Sunday and trying to make some more history.”
By Steve Almasy and Mark Morgenstein, CNN.
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