Danica first woman to win Daytona 500 pole

Ralph N. Paulk
| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 3:48 p.m.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick made it look easy Sunday in becoming the first woman to win a pole on NASCAR's highest circuit, capturing the marquee position for the 55th Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

Patrick, driving the No. 10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, captured the pole for Sunday's season-opening Sprint Cup race with a speed of 196.434 mph. She covered the 2 12-mile oval in 45.817 seconds — the second-fastest qualifying lap in restrictor-plate history.

“It says a lot about the work that was done over the winter,” said Patrick, making only her 11th Cup start. “It's more than just me. This is very much a team front row.”

Patrick faced even more pressure midway through her second qualifying lap when it occurred to her that she could knock her boss, Tony Stewart, off the pole. Ultimately, Stewart posted the fifth-best speed.

“The pole didn't matter to me, personally,” Stewart said. “It mattered as an owner to see Danica finish in the top two.

“We're proud to be a part of the unique history of this sport. She should have a huge amount of pride in it, too.”

Janet Guthrie previously held the record for starting position by a female Sprint Cup driver. Guthrie twice started ninth in 1977, at Talladega Superspeedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. Guthrie's best start in the Daytona 500 was 18th in 1980.

Patrick's pole victory wasn't assured until Juan Pablo Montoya crossed the finish line with the 13th-fastest qualifying speed. Montoya, driving the No. 42 Chevrolet for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, was the last of 37 drivers vying to bump Patrick from the front row, where she will start alongside three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon.

Gordon posed the only serious threat to Patrick during the final hour of time trials. The four-time points champion overcame a shaky first lap to post a speed of 196.292 mph.

“We're here to win the Daytona 500, and sitting on the front row is a step in that goal,” said Gordon, making his fourth start on the front row. “The way testing went, we were so-so, and my expectations were kind of low. I thought the wind was in our favor.”

With Patrick leading the way, Stewart-Haas Racing claimed three of the top five qualifying spots. As a result, Patrick and Gordon will start on the front row of Thursday's 150-mile qualifying duel races. Patrick and third-fastest qualifier Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, will start up front in the first Budweiser 150, and Gordon will line up opposite Ryan Newman in the second duel.

“Stewart-Haas obviously has its stuff together,” Newman said. “Obviously, Danica was better than us the entire weekend, in practice as well as (Sunday).”

Patrick, who became the 11th straight different driver to win the pole here, outdueled Gordon and Bayne by hugging the apron tighter and longer along the back straightaway. It was just enough to give her a slim advantage as she roared out of Turns 3 and 4 to take the checkered flag.

“There's so much work that goes into this car, and if you're anywhere except the front row, it's hard to see on race day,” said Patrick, who is trying to become the first pole winner since Dale Jarrett in 2002 to win the 200-lap feature. “This was about 90 percent of the team and 10 percent about me.”

But crew chief Tony Gibson said Patrick made a good car better on a sometimes-windy afternoon.

“It's more than 10 percent,” Gibson said. “We gave her a good product, but she took it the rest of the way. She didn't falter. She did everything right. It's a big deal for me because I've been knocked off the front row a few times.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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