DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When she was racing go-karts on the tracks near her home in Roscoe, Ill., Danica Patrick was taught that she was capable of being the fastest driver, not just the fastest girl.
“That was instilled in me when I was very young, from the beginning,’’ she said.
That approach served Patrick well as she plowed through one gender barrier after another, becoming the first woman to lead a lap in the Indianapolis 500 in her 2005 debut, the highest-qualifying (fourth in 2005) and -finishing (third in 2009) female in Indy 500 history, and the first to win a major closed-course auto race in an IndyCar Series event in Japan in 2008.
“I feel like I’ve been lucky in my career to be with good teams and have good people around me,’’ said Patrick, 30, who started out driving Indy cars eight years ago for Bobby Rahal before jumping ship to drive for Michael Andretti in 2007, then making a switch to stock cars in 2010 to drive a limited Nationwide schedule for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Now, after becoming the first woman in NASCAR history to win a Sprint Cup pole position, Patrick is perfectly positioned to become the first woman in NASCAR history to win not just any Sprint Cup race, but the sport’s crown jewel: Sunday’s 55th Daytona 500.
“I have 100 percent confidence in her skills and her ability,’’ said crew chief Tony Gibson, who was paired with Patrick for the final two races of her 10-race limited Sprint Cup schedule last season, producing a 24th at Texas and a season-high 17th at Phoenix.
“I’ve seen it in the two races we did last year. We were sitting there running 11th or 12th in Phoenix on the lead lap and running with guys I never dreamed we’d be running with. So she’s got the talent and she’s got the ability.’’
Driving for champion owner/driver Tony Stewart, for whom she’ll run full-time this season in her rookie Sprint Cup campaign, Patrick made history last Sunday when she toured the daunting, high-banked, 2.5-mile tri-oval at Daytona International Speedway with a fast lap of 196.434 miles per hour.
Having forged a strong relationship with Gibson, Patrick silenced her skeptics when she put the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing on the front row of the 43-car field.
“I think Danica has two boyfriends,” kidded Stewart. “She has Ricky [Stenhouse Jr.] and she has Tony Gibson. They are always holding hands in the shop when they’re there every day together.
“It’s good for me as an owner. I like to see that chemistry.’’
With so many elements — team, car, sponsor, crew chief — operating in unison at a perfect pitch, Patrick’s pole victory raised a larger question: Can she win the Daytona 500?
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility as long as she stays in the hunt,’’ said Janet Guthrie, 74, the trailblazing grand dame of motorsports who in 1977 became the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500.
“She seems to be getting along very well with her new crew chief and that is a large part of the battle. Her results in Nationwide and Cup last year were not stellar, but this new team situation seems to have improved things a great deal, so it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.’’
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, now an ESPN analyst, was the last driver to win the race from the pole position, in 2000.
“You just have to put yourself in a position to make that happen,’’ Jarrett said. “Can she run in the top 10 and get herself in a position? Yes, she can do that. Can she make the right moves without having been in that position before? She has the skills and she has the car, and if she does all the right things with a fast racecar, we’ve seen a lot of things can happen at the end of these races.’’
Gibson recalled Derrike Cope’s improbable victory over Dale Earnhardt in the 1990 Daytona 500 as an example.
“Nobody gave him a chance either,’’ Gibson said. “But I saw him in Victory Lane and I actually hung the body on that car so I know it can be done.’’
Then there was Trevor Bayne’s victory at Daytona two years ago when he became the youngest winner in the history of the race.
“Trevor Bayne won this race when he was 20 years old,’’ said Joie Chitwood, Daytona’s track president. “I would give Danica at least as good odds as him. People forget about Trevor Bayne. No one thought he would do anything. How can you discount her chances when she’s been racing longer?
“At the end of the day, she’s on a good team with good equipment.’’
With Hendrick-supplied engines that are as fast as — or even faster than — those of her male counterparts, Patrick has a shot because the playing field has been seemingly leveled.Continued...