In historic first, Danica leaps to next level
By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
For the first three days of Speedweeks at Daytona, all the buzz was about Danica Patrick and what she was doing off-track, specifically her romance with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
But after Sunday’s pole qualifying for the 55th annual Daytona 500, the talk shifted to Patrick’s activities on the track. She made NASCAR history by turning a lap at 196.434 miles per hour to win the pole for the 500. She became the first woman to win the pole for a race in the series now known as Sprint Cup. And she became the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2002 to win the pole for the sport’s most prestigious race in their rookie season. Patrick broke the qualifying record for females held by Janet Guthrie, who qualified ninth at Bristol and Talladega in 1977.
She will start the 500 alongside outside pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, and the remainder of the starting lineup will be determined after Thursday’s Budweiser Duels.
Like many a Daytona pole winner before her, Patrick gave much of the credit to her crew, led by veteran crew chief and Daytona Beach resident Tony Gibson.
“I appreciate the recognition, but it really falls, as I think I said before I went out on the track, 90 percent on Tony [Gibson] and his guys, everybody that gives me the car to go out there and be fast, and maybe 10 percent on me,” Patrick said. “All I have to do is think about going out there, being smooth, not letting the car bind up, running on that yellow line.
“Outside of that, I think it shows how well-prepared Tony and everybody was, how strong the Hendrick engines are, how good the new Chevy SS is.
We’ve been fast since practice in January.”
Gibson said Patrick, who will start on the pole for the first Budweiser Duel qualifying race on Thursday and on the pole for the Daytona 500 no matter where she finishes in the Duel, understated her contribution to the final result.
“It’s more than 10 percent because you can put a good product out there, but if you don’t have the person to drive it, put everything else together, it can really damage your day,” he said. “We just gave her a product that was really good and she took it the rest of the way. It’s more than 10 percent, I promise you. It’s 50/50.”
Gibson also pointed out that Patrick had a lot on the line, not just because of her gender but because of her lack of a guaranteed starting spot for the 500.
“I’m proud of her,” he said. “I know there was a lot of pressure on her to come here and qualify well, in the top six, to lock us in. I’m proud of her to carry that weight on her shoulders. She didn’t falter. She did everything right. She hit her marks, hit her marks on the shifts, and here we are.”
Patrick, who also made history for women by leading laps in the Indianapolis 500 and by winning an Indy car race in Japan, attributed her record-breaking racing career in large part to fast cars, to her upbringing and to her ability to perform at a high level while under the glare of the spotlight that comes with being a high-profile female performer in a mostly male sport.
“First and foremost, I grew up with good values and good goals,” she said. “I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl. That was instilled in me from very young, from the beginning.
“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.”