DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Danica Patrick has won the Daytona 500 pole, becoming the first woman to secure the top spot for any Sprint Cup race.
It was the biggest achievement of her four-year NASCAR career.
Patrick went out eighth in the qualifying session Sunday and covered the 2½-mile superspeedway in 45.817 seconds, averaging 196.434 mph.
“Hopefully, there are good things to come,” Patrick said.
She waited about two hours as 37 fellow drivers tried to take her spot. Only four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon even came close to knocking her off.
Gordon was the only other driver who topped 196 mph. He locked up the other guaranteed spot in next week’s season-opening Daytona 500.
“It’s great to be part of history,” Gordon said. “I can say I was the fastest guy today.”
The rest of the field will be set in duel qualifying races Thursday.
However the lineup unfolds, all drivers will line up behind Patrick’s No. 10 Chevrolet SS for “The Great American Race.”
“We say it’s not really us, but she’s got to do her part, too,” team owner and fellow driver Tony Stewart said. “She did a really good job. I’m proud of all of us.”
Patrick has been the talk of Speedweeks. Not only did she open up about her budding romance with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but she was considered the front-runner for the pole after turning the fastest laps in practice Saturday.
And she didn’t disappoint.
She kept her car at or near the bottom of the famed track and gained ground on the straightaways, showing lots of power from a Hendrick Motorsports engine.
The result surely felt good, especially considering the former IndyCar driver has mostly struggled in three NASCAR seasons. Her best finish in 10 Cup races is 17th, and she has one top-five in 58 starts in the second-tier Nationwide Series.
She raced part-time in 2010 and 2011 while still driving a full IndyCar slate. She switched solely to stock cars last season and finished 10th in the Nationwide standings.
She made the jump to Sprint Cup this season and will battle Stenhouse for Rookie of the Year honors.
But taking the pole will make her the talk of the town for another week. She also won the pole at Daytona for last year’s Nationwide race.
This is considerably bigger.
The previous highest female qualifier in a Cup race was Janet Guthrie. She started ninth at Bristol and Talladega in 1977.
“That’s a really big deal because qualifying for the Daytona 500 is really interesting thing,” Patrick said. “If you’re anywhere but the front row, it’s really hard to see on race day. This just speaks volumes of Stewart-Haas Racing. It just shows what a great organization it is.”
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