DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After winning the pole for the Daytona 500 one week ago Danica Patrick had already earned plenty of notoriety and fame as the first female pole winner in NASCAR Sprint Cup history.
Even if she faltered in Sunday’s 55th Daytona 500, she would have more than left an impact on this year’s SpeedWeeks.
Once the race started, however, she proved that she belonged at the front of the field – at least at Daytona Int’l Speedway. She ran in the top-three for most of the race.
Already the first female driver ever to lead laps at the Indianapolis 500 during her rookie year in 2005 and the highest finishing female driver in Indy 500 history with a third-place finish in 2009 had already earned history as the first female pole winner in Daytona 500 history last Sunday.
Patrick drove a superb race, hanging with the lead group of drivers throughout the race and had her No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet in front three times for five laps to become the first female ever to lead the Daytona 500.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 starter Janet Guthrie was the only previous female driver to lead a NASCAR Cup race, leading five laps under caution at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1977.
While Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 for the second time in his career he will have to share some of the attention with Patrick and her impressive Daytona 500 run.
But watching her skillfully drive near the front of the field for most of the race was impressive, especially to the race winner.
“Well, she’s really comfortable in the car,” Johnson said of Patrick. “Being close to other competitors, door‑to‑door, whatever environment takes place on the racetrack, at these speeds, she was very comfortable. Held a great wheel. Was smooth and predictable. Took advantage of runs when she had them. She did a really good job.
“It was just another car on the track. I didn’t think about it being Danica in the car. It was just another car on the track that was fast. That’s a credit to her and the job she’s doing.
“I think the style of racetrack really suits her. When we get to the other tracks, she has a tall learning curve ahead of her. She continues to show her ability to drive racecars. She made history today, and in fine fashion, too.”
While Patrick hung tough and remained in contention for the victory heading to the white flag, she got shuffled back on the final lap to finish eighth but drove an extremely impressive Daytona 500.
“I ran up front all day long and we led a little,” Patrick said. “We stayed in the top-10 all day pretty much, had nice pit stops by the GoDaddy crew, the car was fast and it’s always a little frustrating when you come through and your top three on that last lap. I will learn more for next time.
“I really didn’t feel like I had a great grasp as to ‘how do you go win this race’. I hadn’t wrapped my head around exactly how that was going to happen. I kept thinking about it out there because for the most part I was running half throttle for most of the race running in the line. I will know better for next time and for Talladega. I mean the same stuff will probably apply. Good job Jimmie (Johnson) we got a Chevy to win so that is good.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. helped bring Patrick to NASCAR when she was splitting time between the IZOD IndyCar Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2010-2011. She left IndyCar at the end of 2011 to run full-time in NASCAR for JR Motorsports – Earnhardt’s Nationwide Series team.
Now, she is at Stewart Haas Racing and is not longer drive for Earnhardt but he continues to chart her progress.
“She’s going to make a lot of history all year long,” Earnhardt said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress. I think she’s done her best work in the Cup car myself. I think for whatever reason she seems to get a lot more out of that car. Every time I’ve seen her in a pretty hectic situation, she always really remained calm. She’s got a great level head. She’s a racer. She knows what’s coming. She’s smart about her decisions. She knew what to do today as far as track position and not taking risks, like she said.
“I enjoy racing with her. Look forward to more all year long. It’s just going to be a lot of fun having her in the series.
“I was just trying to get the best finish I could. I wanted to get in the media center to thank my crew and everything. I was just trying to get on the podium. Danica has done so good all week and her car has been great and she’s pretty tenacious out there, so I didn’t have any problem getting up there and drafting with her.”
What makes Patrick a fan favorite is the way she looks and her fierce determination behind the wheel of a race car. That is why she was second-guessing her effort when she was third with one lap to go in contention for the victory and ultimately finished eighth.
“I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say what could I have, should I have done to give myself that opportunity to win,” Patrick said. “I think that’s what I was feeling today, was uncertainty as to how I was going to accomplish that. There was plenty of time while you were cruising along. I was talking to Tony and my spotter on the radio, ‘What do you see people doing, what’s working, what is not.’ I was thinking in the car, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I didn’t know what to do exactly.
“So I feel like maybe that’s just my inexperience. Maybe that’s me not thinking hard enough. I don’t know. I’m getting creative enough. I’m not sure. I definitely was a little uncertain how I was going to be able to do it. I think Dale did a nice job and shows what happens when you plan it out, you drop back, get that momentum and you’re able to go to the front.
“You know, I think he taught me something and I’m sure I’ll watch the race and there will be other scenarios out there that I’ll see that can teach me, too.”
Although she finished eighth in the first Cup race of her first full-time Cup season, Patrick isn’t going to let expectations run awry. She believes that would be setting herself up for failure.
“The only thing we can go off of is at the end of last year and running solid inside that top 20, hopefully get inside that top 15,” she said. “That’s really all I can think right now. That’s all I can think. It might change after five races. It might be better. Who knows? It might be worse. We’re going to kind of pick up where we left off.”
With so much attention and pressure placed on Patrick after winning the Daytona 500 Pole she got a little advice from her team owner, Stewart.
“He just said, ‘Block all this out. You go do it. It’s your time now. Focus. You’ll do a great job,’” Patrick recalled. “I’d love to be able to talk to somebody like Tony Stewart and just get the rundown on how it’s going to go, but you have to experience it for yourself. For me I also have to have experience to ask and figure out how to do them better next time. It’s not so easy as to talk to Tony and get the scope of it.
“What he said was simple, but calming, and it probably was what also drove me to just, as soon as the anthem was over with, to get in the car. People are trying to make decisions around me. Are you going to do it? Are you not going to do it? I’m putting my ear piece in, if you want a picture with my back to you, that’s fine, but I’m getting in the car because it’s time to work.
“I’m honored. But, again, these are things that just happen along the way. I’m on the quest to be the best driver, run up front, and get to victory lane. These things happen and I’m proud, but they’re not the ultimate goal.”
Patrick hasn’t reached her goal yet, but Sunday’s Daytona 500 was a good start.