Guthrie recalled how her Daytona debut was beset by one obstacle after another, beginning with a qualifying setup she described as being somewhere between “pathetic and borderline dangerous.”
After jousting with her team manager, Guthrie had him find out the proper setup for the car. It resulted in improved handling during the race that enabled Guthrie to battle from the back of the pack to within striking distance of the leaders.
“In fact, I was running eighth about 10 laps from the end when I lost a couple of cylinders and so I dropped four positions in the last 10 laps,’’ Guthrie recalled. “I probably would’ve finished seventh or eighth.’’
What would it mean if Patrick were to win the Daytona 500?
“Oh, well, that would be the biggest thing in the history of motorsports,’’ said Guthrie, indicating that it would overshadow even the obscure breakthrough of Eliska Junkova, a Czech female Grand Prix driver, who in 1928 finished fifth in the famed Targa Florio, a three-lap, 277-mile endurance race around a 67-mile course on the island of Sicily.
“She very nearly won it against some of the top Grand Prix drivers of her time,’’ Guthrie said, rattling off the names of Tazio Nuvolari, Rene Dreyfus, Ernesto Maserati, and Luigi Fagioli, all of whom were among the 25 drivers who finished behind Junkova.
“The race took something like eight hours and she led most of it. Then her water pump failed and she had to stop at just about every creek to take on more water. She didn’t win, but she made a heck of a showing.’’
When he was track president at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chitwood recalled Patrick having a similar impact when she finished fourth in her Indy 500 debut in 2005.
“What I remember was, literally, every single person standing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, cheering the fact she was leading the race,’’ Chitwood said. “It was one of those instances where you say, ‘Oh . . . my . . . gosh, is this happening?’ because a woman had never led at Indy.
“I just remember the electricity in the crowd. If she had won the race, people would’ve torn down the grandstands.’’
Patrick’s Daytona pole victory created a similar buzz, triggering a media crush that saw her conduct a four-hour satellite media tour Tuesday with CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, CNN, and ESPN.
Her star power enhanced by her appearance in 12 Super Bowl GoDaddy.com television ads, Patrick has moved the needle like no other driver. Her stock car debut in the 2010 ARCA Racing Series opener televised by Speed drew a total of 2.4 million viewers, an 87 percent increase over the previous year’s audience of 1.3 million.
Given her popularity, especially among the daughters of her fellow Sprint Cup drivers, Patrick appears to be a threat to unseat Earnhardt Jr. from his reign of 10 consecutive years as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.
When Jeff Gordon qualified second, his daughter, Ella Sofia, asked to have her photograph taken with Patrick in Victory Lane. Later, Jimmie Johnson brought his daughter, Genevieve, around to meet Patrick.
A few days before that, Carl Edwards brought his daughter, Anne, to Patrick’s motorcoach so she could meet her favorite driver. Anne wore green GoDaddy shoes and a green coat.
“Carl was saying that it was good for her to see me in real life and in person,’’ Patrick said. “Because he was like, ‘Because to her, you are like some mythical creature that doesn’t exist.’ ’’
Patrick’s popularity among the progeny of today’s established NASCAR stars could very well inspire the next generation of female drivers.
“I think you can lead by example and I don’t necessarily want my example to be to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy’s world,’’ Patrick said. “That is not what I’m trying to say, but if you have talent for something to not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. Not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different is to ignore that and let it be about what your potential is.”
Then, pausing to consider the question that has followed her since her history-making pole, Patrick said, “Can I win? Yeah, absolutely.’’
Patrick recorded the third-fastest lap (197.010) during Friday’s practice session, which was led by Stewart (197.131) and Gordon (197.075). Taking the conservative route in Thursday’s Budweiser Duel, a pair of 150-mile qualifying heats that set the field for the Daytona 500, Patrick completed 32 laps of practice and drafted with Hendrick’s four-car stable as well as her own boss.Continued...