Daytona Beach, Fla., is steeped in motorsports history. Known as “the birthplace of speed,” land speed records have been set on its white sand beaches. Drivers from a variety of disciplines have visited its victory lanes. One of the world’s great monuments to auto racing, the Daytona International Speedway, sits nestled within the city limits. Even North America’s most popular racing series — NASCAR — was founded at the Streamline Hotel, just off the beach in 1947.
On Sunday, Daytona Beach played host to another motorsports first when Danica Patrick became the first female to win a pole in 65 years of NASCAR competition. And she did so for the sport’s most prestigious event, the Daytona 500.
Patrick, who was the eighth of 45 cars to qualify, posted a lap of 196.434 mph. She held off Jeff Gordon (196.292 mph), who will start second and is the only other driver to be locked into a qualifying spot on the gird. The remainder of the field will be set in Thursday’s Duel 150s.
“It was a fast Chevy,” Patrick said of her No. 10 GoDaddy.com SS that also paced the field in Saturday’s qualifying practice session. “If you’re anywhere but the front row, it’s hard to see on race day. This just speaks volumes about Stewart-Haas Racing — I thought we were going to be 1-2-3 for a while.”
Indeed, Patrick’s three-car operation, co-owned by Tony Stewart, was impressive on pole day. It was Stewart whom she knocked off the top spot and teammate Ryan Newman who shared the front row with the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year candidate for much of the session. Newman’s time of 195.946 mph eventually landed him fourth (2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne was third), while Stewart was fifth. Hendrick Motorsports’ Kasey Kahne was sixth, the final driver to be guaranteed a spot in the field based solely on Sunday’s qualifying session.
“I think it shows how hard Stewart-Haas Racing has worked on this new car,” Patrick said of what NASCAR is billing as its “Gen-6” car, that boast bodies unique to each manufacturer. “And obviously, Hendrick has done a great job giving us good engines.”
Hendrick Motorsports supplies SHR with engines, chassis and other technical support, serving as a mothership of sorts for the five-year old organization. Stewart acknowledged the pure speed Hendrick’s powerplants supplied, saying, “I wish I could say it was her, or myself or Ryan today, but it’s those guys in the engine shop.”
Of course, a car going fast by itself and being competitive in a pack — which horsepower-sapping restrictor plates at Daytona dictate — are two different things. That was apparent in Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. In that event, Stewart, along with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth, appeared to have the strongest cars in the 19-car field. However, it was Kevin Harvick who emerged with the win after throwing blocks on Stewart and Ford’s Greg Biffle on the final lap to secure victory.
And the last pole-sitter to win The Great American Race? Dale Jarrett, over a decade ago, in 2000.
But for the next week, Patrick will enjoy the history she made on Sunday. A history that was a long time in the making, as the previous highest qualifying female in a Cup race was Janet Guthrie, who qualified ninth at Bristol and Talladega in 1977.
“It’s nice to hear families talk about the fact that a little girl might say, ‘But Mommy, Daddy, that’s a girl out there.’” Patrick said. “Then they can have the conversation with their kid about you can do anything you want and being different doesn’t, by any means, allow you to follow your dreams. I love to think that conversation happens in households because of something I’ve done.”
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro