Danica Patrick made history today, taking the top spot for next Sunday's Daytona 500. Patrick put down a best speed of 196.434 mph (45.817 seconds). She'll lead the field to the green flag with Jeff Gordon, who turned a fast lap of 196.292 (45.850 seconds). Danica became the first woman to qualify for the pole in Sprint Cup history, and the first Cup rookie to sit atop the field since Jimmie Johnson in 2002.
"I'm supposed to be excited and relieved today." NASCAR's princess of speed said today after her historic run. "I feel like a broken record. I probably will feel even more so by the end of the day after all my interviews.
But I appreciate the recognition, but it really falls, as I think I said before I went out on the track, 90% on Tony and his guys, everybody that gives me the car to go out there and be fast, and maybe 10% on me.
All I have to do is think about going out there, being smooth, not letting the car bind up, running on that yellow line. Outside of that, I think it shows how well-prepared Tony and everybody was, how strong the Hendrick engines are, how good the new Chevy SS is. We've been fast since practice in January.
Last year I was pretty decent in practice and came for the race and it wasn't the same situation. This year it continued. I think that just shows how well-prepared they all have been, how hard they've worked over the winter.
It's really amazing how much effort is put into a qualifying car for Daytona, for the 500, and really only the front row is what sticks for Sunday. It's nice that all that hard work can pay off and that we can give ourselves that opportunity to lead the pack down into the tri-oval for the green flag of the Daytona 500."
Patrick was fastest in practice yesterday, and she followed up her run Saturday by topping the field. In 2005, Patrick was fastest at practice for the Indianapolis 500, but gusty conditions at the brickyard dropped her to fourth. Danica spoke of the conditions at Daytona today. "Everything seemed pretty smooth. 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." Patrick said.
So, is Patrick comfortable in the spotlight, when the pressure's on? "I think that's a perceptive observation. 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." Danica agreed.
How does this compare to leading at Indy, or winning at Motegi? "This is a pretty big stage. There's 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's 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."
Patrick added "There's going to be a whole story here.
It's a cool day. I've been lucky enough and very blessed in my career to have had a lot of really, really cool days, a lot of things that in 20 years - got to be careful here - in a really long time I can reflect on and be very grateful. I was going to say when I'm old and decrepit.
My dad said he was going to show up with a lot more gray hairs when qualifying is over with. My hairstylist the other day said he saw one. I cried a little (laughter)."
Jeff Gordon also commented on Danica's historic moment. "She comes into this with racing background, with a tremendous amount of exposure, momentum, just popularity that we've never seen before, especially from a female driver.
For her to then follow that up or start the season off with a pole, it's huge. It's big. Surprised you're even talking to me right now, right (laughter)? I'm glad I didn't win the pole, we would have messed that story all up (smiling).
I've always been a big believer in what's good for the sport is good for all of us. So this is great for the sport. The rest of us will benefit from that, as well. I'm proud to be on the front row this year side-by-side with Danica."
Somewhere there's a NASCAR old school fan that's shaking his head, thinking The Princess and The Wonder Boy are leading the field next Sunday, no matter what happens Thursday. He's likely disappointed that it's not some good 'ole boy that hung on too long, ugly that there's no beer sponsor on the front row, and no Earnhardt to "see" the air. That'd be a shame, really, because as much as FVP has looked down our noses at Danica's run in NASCAR thus far, we certainly recognize a historic event in the sport. It's a watershed moment, and we should all enjoy the fact that come Sunday, a woman will lead the field to the green of The Great American race.
Let "the call" conspiracy talk commence. Green flag drops for the twin 125's Thursday.
Photo credit: Steve Pouliot Images