DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Once again, Danica Patrick made history.
In winning the pole for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500 during Sunday’s time trials at Daytona International Speedway, Patrick set a new standard for female drivers at the highest levels of the speed sports.
Patrick is the first female driver to win a pole for any race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. On Sunday, she was one of only two drivers to top the 196-mph mark.
The other was Jeff Gordon. He and Patrick locked in their starting spots for the Daytona 500 and will lead the field to green in their respective Budweiser Duel 150 qualifying races on Thursday and in the Great American Race three days later.
“I’m proud of all the hard work that goes into making a pole car,” said Patrick, already the highest female finisher in the history of the Indianapolis 500 (third in 2009) and the highest female finisher in any one of NASCAR’s top three series (fourth in the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas).
“It’s so many different things. It’s all the attention and detail these guys put in over the winter, and I can’t be more proud of them.”
The eighth driver to make a qualifying attempt, Patrick ran her first timed lap in 46.420 seconds (193.882 mph) and improved to 45.817 seconds (196.434 mph) on her money lap. Six cars later, Ryan Newman, Patrick’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, posed the first serious threat to her supremacy.
Newman was clocked at 46.384 seconds on his first lap, but lost time to Patrick on his second. One bullet dodged, as Newman qualified fourth overall at 195.946 seconds.
With a huge gain from his first lap to his second, Gordon improved to 196.292 mph (45.850 seconds), and was elated with his result.
“Awesome lap,” Gordon said while time trials were still in progress. “I didn’t expect to be as quick as this is. I hope it holds up for the front row, because it’s an awesome experience to be on the front row for the Daytona 500. I didn’t think anybody was going to come close to that 10 (Patrick), but we came a lot closer than we thought we would.”
Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, qualified third at 195.976 mph. Tony Stewart posted the fifth fastest speed at 195.925 mph, putting three Stewart-Haas Racing cars in the top five.
Patrick used a traditional strategy to score her first pole, running a high line on her first lap and then hugging the yellow line on the bottom of the track on her second.
“I was a little bit nervous. It’s all about just getting the shifts right and being smooth, and more than anything, you’re trying to hug the line as much as possible, trying to not steer too much,” Patrick said. “Sometimes the car wants to track up and move up the track a little bit, and you’ve got to pull it down, but you also don’t want to hit the apron. So it’s not like you go out there and lock your arms, and it just stays there.
“It’s not that perfect of an arc around the corner. You’re just trying to be smooth and run a nice line that doesn’t scrub any speed. Then the question always is, if the car feels like it’s bound up and wanting to be freed up, do you let it up off the corner and run more distance on the exit, or do you keep it pinched down and run a shorter distance?”
As she continues to transition from a career in IndyCars, Patrick is learning.
“Back in the IndyCar days, it was all about the shorter distance, because you had so much power, but in these cars, we’re at terminal velocity, it feels like, for the whole lap, for the most part. So you don’t want to scrub too much speed, and they’re so much heavier to get going again. So it’s a little bit different from what I’m used to.”
Not too much different, however, to prevent her from winning the pole for NASCAR’s most prestigious race.
Notes: The Budweiser Duels will lock in the first 32 positions for the Daytona 500. Beyond that the drivers with the next four fastest qualifying times not otherwise in the field will occupy positions 33-36. Positions 37-42 are provisionals based on 2012 car owner points, with the 43rd spot reserved for a past champion, if needed, or a seventh provisional. … Janet Guthrie held the previous mark for qualifying by a female driver. She started ninth twice in 1977, at Bristol and Talladega. … Patrick’s qualifying speed was third fastest at Daytona since the introduction of restrictor plates at the 2.5-mile track in 1989. Ken Schrader ran faster laps in time trials in both 1989 and 1990. … Patrick is the 11th consecutive different driver to win the pole for the Daytona 500.