DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick is at her best in the spotlight.
Good thing, too, because she’s going to be there all week.
Patrick won the Daytona 500 pole Sunday, becoming the first woman to secure the top spot for any race in NASCAR’s premier circuit. It’s by far the biggest achievement of her stock-car career. She’s braced for the attention that will follow.
“I think when pressure’s on and when the spotlight’s on, I feel like it ultimately ends up becoming some of my better moments and my better races and better results,” Patrick said. “I just understand that if you put the hard work in before you go out there that you can have a little peace and a little peace of mind knowing that you’ve done everything you can and just let it happen.”
Patrick, who taped interviews Sunday with CNN, ESPN and Good Morning America, was the first woman to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500. She finished third in 2009, the highest finish in that illustrious race for a woman. And she became the only woman to win an IndyCar race when she did it in Japan in 2008.
Her latest stamp in the history books came with a lap at 196.434 mph around Daytona International Speedway. Patrick went out eighth in the qualifying session, then had to wait about two hours as 37 fellow drivers tried to take her spot.
Photos: Danica Patrick
Only four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon even came close to knocking her off the pole. Gordon was the only other driver who topped 196 mph in qualifying. He locked up the other guaranteed spot in next week’s season-opening Daytona 500.
“It’s great to be a part of history with Danica being on the pole,” said Gordon, who joked that at least he was the fastest guy. “I think we all know how popular she is, what this will do for our sport. Congratulations to her. Proud to be on there with her.”
The rest of the field will be set in duel qualifying races Thursday.
However the lineup unfolds, all drivers — including boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — will line up behind Patrick’s No. 10 Chevrolet SS.
“I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl,” she said. “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.”
Even before her fast lap, Patrick had been the talk of Speedweeks. Not only did she open up about her budding romance with Stenhouse — Patrick officially filed to end her seven-year marriage to 47-year-old Paul Hospenthal in January — but she was considered the front-runner for the pole after leading practice sessions Saturday.
Now, she will garner even more hype.
“That’s a huge accomplishment,” team owner and fellow driver Tony Stewart said. “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.”
The result surely felt good for Patrick, especially considering the former IndyCar driver has mostly struggled in three NASCAR seasons. Her best finish in 10 Cup races is 17th, and she has one top-five in 58 starts in the second-tier Nationwide Series.
She raced part-time in 2010 and 2011 while still driving a full IndyCar slate. She switched solely to stock cars last season and finished 10th in the Nationwide standings.
She made the jump to Sprint Cup this season and will battle Stenhouse for Rookie of the Year honors.
Starting out front in an unpredictable, 500-mile race doesn’t guarantee any sort of result, but securing the pole will put her in the limelight for at least the rest of the week.
“I don’t think about Danica as a female race-car driver,” defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski said. “I think of her as a rookie and someone that hasn’t won races or proved that she is competitive.”
Patrick won the pole at Daytona for last year’s Nationwide race.
But this is considerably different, significantly bigger.
The previous highest female qualifier in a Cup race was Janet Guthrie. She started ninth at Bristol and Talladega in 1977.
“It’s obviously a history-making event that will last a long, long time,” Guthrie said, praising Patrick’s feat. “It’s a different era, of course. Different times. I can’t imagine what I would do with a spotter or somebody telling me how to drive. It’s rather a different sport now. Back then, there was a much greater difference from the front of the field to the back.”
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