The Racing Capital
of the World
February 17, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – When it comes to performing on auto racing’s biggest stages Danica Patrick certainly has a knack for grabbing the spotlight.
She proved that in her very first Indianapolis 500 in 2005 when she nearly won the pole and became the first female driver ever to lead laps in the “World’s Most Famous Race.” In fact, she was in the lead with seven laps to go before she was passed by eventual winner Dan Wheldon and settled for fourth place. She is also the highest finishing female driver in Indy 500 history with a third place in 2009, and was the first female ever to win in a major racing series with her IZOD IndyCar Series win at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008.
NASCAR’s biggest race is the Daytona 500 and Patrick achieved history Sunday as the first female pole winner in this race’s glorious history.
Patrick’s GoDaddy Chevrolet was the fastest car in qualifications with a lap at 196.434 miles per hour in a Chevrolet. She will be flanked on the outside of the front row by “Brickyard Legend” Jeff Gordon, who grew up in Pittsboro, Ind., who ran a lap at 196.292 mph in the Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet.
“I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl,” Patrick said. “That’s how I’ve always approached my racing career. I’ve been lucky enough to make history and be the first woman to do many things. We have a lot more history to make and we are excited to do it.”
Gordon, who is celebrating his 20th Daytona 500 anniversary this year, was honored to be part of NASCAR history.
“I’m surprised you are even talking to me,” Gordon said. “I’ve always been a firm believer in what is good for the sport is good for all of us. This is great for the sport.
“You never quite grasp history in the making in the moment. Everybody captures it in different ways, for me it’s easy to recognize the media surrounding her and the hype that is part of the Daytona 500. To back that up and for her to pull it off, we won’t quite know how big it is until later. I think it’s a big moment in history and a great boost for the sport. It’s awesome.”
Patrick has never failed to find the spotlight and there is something about its bright glare that allows her to perform. She led laps in the Indianapolis 500, won an IndyCar race at Motegi and now she is a Daytona 500 pole winner.
When the stage is big Patrick knows how to become the performer.
“This is a pretty big stage,” Patrick said. “There are a lot of people that benefit from this and a lot of people see it. I feel like there's a lot of people win more so than ever with this one as far as the team, Tony, Go Daddy, Hendrick, Chevy. There are a lot of people that benefit from this because of the big platform that it is. It's not just like the high point of my name or what I've done. There's going to be a whole story here.
“I think when pressure's on, when the spotlight is on, I do feel like it ultimately ends up becoming some of my better moments, better races, better results. I don't know why that is. I'm grateful for it because the opposite of that would be I'm guessing I probably wouldn't be here today, and I wouldn't be in the position I'm in. I guess thanks Mom and Dad for the genetics, thank you for all that. I just understand if you put the hard work in before you go out there that you can have a little bit of peace of mind knowing you've done everything you can, and just let it happen.”
Patrick and Gordon are locked into their starting position for Sunday’s Daytona 500. The next four drivers are guaranteed a starting position on speed regardless of where they finish in Thursday’s Budweiser Duels.
Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, was third at 195.976 mph in a Ford followed by Ryan Newman’s 195.946 mph in a Chevrolet. Tony Stewart’s Chevrolet was fifth at 195.925 mph and Kasey Kahne’s Chevrolet was sixth at 195.852.
Those six drivers are guaranteed a start in the race with the latter four drivers starting positions determined after Thursday’s two 150-mile qualifying races.
While this is the first Sprint Cup pole of Patrick’s career it’s her second-straight at Daytona. She won the pole for last year’s Nationwide Series race at the 2.5-mile oval.
“I’m proud of all the hard work that goes into making a pole car,” Patrick said. “It’s not just about turning left; it’s about a lot of other things. The guys back at the shop and Hendrick giving me a fast engine for this fast Chevy. Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is an interesting thing because so much work goes into this car. There is a lot more left in the races to get the end, have a fast car, but this speaks volumes for Stewart Haas Racing.”
All three SHR cars are in the top five including Patrick, Newman and Stewart.
“Watching Tony Stewart last night it showed how solid the cars are, but I am not Tony Stewart,” Patrick said. “As a team it shows how strong we are. We are strong in qualifying, so hopefully there are a lot of good things to come.”
Stewart was proud of his team’s efforts.
“They make me look really smart, but I’m not,” Stewart said. “I could not be more proud of what our guys have done in the offseason. They worked really, really hard for a lot of late nights. Today is a day to show what the guys at the shop have done for us. I’m just really, really proud of these guys.”
Stewart was most proud of his driver.
“She is outracing people with a lot less experience,” Stewart said. “You could see what she did in IndyCar. You could see it. She’s got talent. To come here and have that kind of composure and run the lap as smooth as she did, she did a really good job.”
Patrick will start on the pole of Thursday’s first Duel and Gordon will lead the field to the green flag of Thursday’s second 150-mile Duel.
“I like the Duels to go out and race hard to find out what we can do to win the Daytona 500,” Gordon said. “This is such a great way to get the season started. Congratulations to Danica. It’s great to be part of history.
“I guess I can say I’m the fastest guy out there today.”
Daytona Beach is full of “Snowbirds” from Indiana who either have retirement homes in this Beachside community or spend a winter vacation in the area. There was definitely an Indiana influence in qualifications with strong connection to either the state or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Patrick was a star driver in the Indianapolis 500 from 2005-2011. Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 – the first of his four wins at Indianapolis. Newman is from South Bend, Ind., and attended Purdue University. And Stewart is from Columbus, Ind., and is considered the greatest race driver ever produced by the Hoosier state with three NASCAR Sprint Cup titles and two Brickyard 400 wins.
He is a determined driver, but on Sunday Stewart was a proud team owner.
“To have three cars in the top five like that, just really, really appreciative and excited that we were able to bring three consistent cars down like this,” Stewart said. “Her car, she just did a really good job of carrying speed off of turn two, where she made all of her time up was down the backstretch. Carrying that speed off of two is a big key to that.
“She did her job behind the wheel, for sure. She did a good job. I'll be honest. The pole didn't matter to me personally. It was more as an owner, wanting Danica to be in the top two today. That way she's locked in, we don't have to worry about what happens on Thursday.
“To me, my eye is still on next Sunday. Ownership side this Sunday, next Sunday I want it from the driver's side.”
Stewart has been outspoken in all of the attention that has been placed on Patrick’s dating life with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. of Roush Fenway Racing and wanted to see the focus placed on Patrick as a race driver.
She delivered that wish with the Daytona 500 pole.
“We're proud for her, too,” Stewart said. “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 here in a Cup car. She's made history in the sport. That's stuff that we're proud of being a part of with her. It's something she should have a huge amount of pride in. 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.
“I think Danica has two boyfriends, she has Ricky and she has crew chief Tony Gibson. They are all but holding hands in the shop when they're there every day together. It's good for me to see as an owner. I like to see that chemistry that you're talking about.”
Patrick was glad that she steered the agenda from her relationship status to what she does on the race track.
“I don’t mind answering questions about the other stuff, but it’s not about racing,” Patrick said. “It’s nice to change the tone of the questions for what is going on on the race track.”
It was her rookie year at Indianapolis in 2005 when she was among the fastest in practice and one of the favorites to win the pole. On her first lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Pole Day she got caught by a gust of wind entering Turn 1. It was enough to cause her car to bobble and that cost her the pole.
The winds were gusting at Daytona on Sunday, but Patrick’s lap was smooth as silk.
“Everything seemed pretty smooth,” Patrick said. “I didn't notice anything that threw me offline or made me move. The car moves around through the corner a little bit. It's hard to keep a perfect arc so you don't hit the apron.
Coming off of two, I felt like the car felt bound up. I let it out a little bit more than I would have. If that was wind, I don't know. But that was something that felt a little bit different compared to yesterday.
“But I think ultimately at the end of the day, too, everything happens for a reason. In fact, I thought about Indy '05, thought about how I was the favorite to win the pole going in. I thought, you know what, maybe I wasn't ready. Maybe my life would have changed and been different because of that happening or whatever. I just feel like I'm comfortable, I'm cool. I've been around for a long time now. Maybe now was the time.”
At least for the next week, Patrick will once again be the center of attention. And this time it’s for all the right reasons.
“We’re going to enjoy this pole for the rest of the week,” Patrick said. “This is a pretty big stage and a lot of people benefit from this and see it because of the big platform that it is. It’s a cool day. I’ve been lucky enough and blessed in my career to have a lot of really cool days and this is certainly one of them.
“I love when people put me on their radar. That feels good to me.”