Danica Patrick, who already made plenty of news off the track at Daytona, made some NASCAR history on it.
Patrick became the first woman in series history to win a pole in the Sprint Cup Series on Sunday and will lead the field to the green flag in next Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
The previous best start for a woman in the series was ninth by Janet Guthrie in 1977. Guthrie also held the previous best start for a woman in the 500, 18th in 1980.
That meant the fastest guy – Jeff Gordon – will only start second.
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Patrick’s first feeling upon learning she had won the pole?
“Pride,” she said. “I’m proud of all the hard work that goes into making a pole-winning car. It’s not just turning left.
“It’s so many other things, including the attention of detail the guys on the team put in over the winter.”
Trevor Bayne qualified third-fastest, Ryan Newman was fourth-best and Tony Stewart fifth as Stewart-Haas Racing placed all three cars among the top five.
Before Sunday, almost all the attention that surrounded Patrick since her arrival Thursday at Daytona was about her budding romance with fellow Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Sunday’s run turned the topic back to the approaching 500 – for now.
“The race is where it’s really at, to get to the end and to have a fast car and be in the right place at the right time. But this just speaks volumes about Stewart-Haas racing,” Patrick said.
“I thought we were going to be one-two-three for a while. But I think it shows what a great organization it is and when you put a good group of people together what can happen.”
Starting up front at Daytona is not new for Patrick.
She won the pole for the Nationwide Series opener at Daytona last year. The only other woman to win a pole in one of NASCAR’s three national series was Shawna Robinson for a race at Atlanta in 1994 on what now is the Nationwide Series.
Also, Patrick had one of the fastest cars during testing last month and was fastest during Friday’s second Cup practice session.
“I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl,” she said.
Winning the pole at any superspeedway usually has little to do with the actual racing, but Patrick’s milestone still was important.
Gordon’s daughter, Ella, asked for and received a photo with Patrick in Victory Lane during her pole-winning award ceremony.
“It’s great to be a part of history, to be on the front row with Danica. We all know how popular she is,” Gordon said. “This is big to be on the front row at Daytona. It’s an accomplishment in itself because of all the hard work that’s put into it.
“We’re here to win the Daytona 500 and sitting on the front row is a great start to accomplishing that goal.”
By virtue of their front-row starts, Patrick will lead the way in the first Gatorade Duel qualifying race Thursday, and Gordon will start out front in the second qualifying race.
With only 45 cars trying to make the 43-car field, the two drivers in biggest danger of missing the race are Mike Bliss and Brian Keselowski, who were the slowest cars and also rank lowest in car owner points.
To get into the 500, they will have to race their way in through Thursday’s qualifying races.
It was hard to find someone more pleased with Sunday’s result than Patrick, but Stewart – her car owner – ranked right up there.
“This was – not only for our organization, but for all the organizations and teams – probably one of the most difficult winters that I can remember from my 15 years of going through offseasons here, for teams to actually get prepared to come down here to Daytona,” Stewart said.
“And to have three cars in the top five like that – I’m just really, really appreciative and excited that we were able to bring three consistent cars down like this.”