History. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Yes, Danica Patrick....on the Daytona 500 pole for next weekend's NASCAR tour kickoff.
Not really. The new Chevys are fast, as Kevin Harvick showed in winning Saturday night's shootout. And Daytona qualifying, one car at a time, is pretty simple, just hit your shifts and hope the wind off the ocean isn't too bad.
How strong are the new Chevys? Five of the six fastest here Sunday afternoon.
While Rick Hendrick's four Chevys were expected to be strong, and they are, but fellow Chevy team owner Tony Stewart had three of the fastest Chevys here Sunday. And fellow Chevy team owner Richard Childress is still celebrating his own victory in Saturday night's shootout.
Joe Gibbs' Toyotas are strong too, with Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
Fords though appear a bit off.
Patrick, whose budding romance with fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse has had the NASCAR press corps playing TMZ the past few days, has been taking all this pressure remarkably well. But then she's been dealing with over-the-top pressure most of her career. Though women have been racing in NASCAR since Louise Smith, Ethel Mobley and Sara Christian ran with the big boys in the early 1950s. Janet Guthrie, Patty Moise, Shawna Robinson, a number of women have raced NASCAR's big leagues and done fairly well.
But none has had the sex appeal and publicity/marketing machine that Danica Patrick has had...or used it more, ah, shamelessly.
No, she really hasn't done much on the track in NASCAR. Last year was a bust.
But this sport -- with the need to impress sponsors and potential sponsors, and to boost sagging TV ratings -- knows how to make the most of opportunities. And Danica Patrick is a big opportunity, which NASCAR marketers have been using hard.
That she hasn't burned out on all this is perhaps the most remarkable thing. This sport can, and will, use up a driver in a heartbeat. Already Patrick hears the NASCAR plane firing its engines to haul her to some more PR appearances.
"I always get Mondays and Tuesdays off," she protested lightly. "Okay, I'll be the dutiful rookie."
Tony Gibson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
As many people razz her as root for her. She takes it all very well -- not all drivers in this business do nearly as well, and many do much worse.
"When pressure's on, when the spotlight is on, I do feel like it ultimately ends up becoming some of my better moments, better races, better results," she says.
Of course Patrick is seen by many as an interesting role model, particularly in a tough and tumble sports world where sometimes people die.
"I've had the experience with mothers, fathers, daughters, sons -- listening to them say the reason they're here as a family is because of me out there," she says. "Whether it brings the girls out, the guys out, whatever it is, I don't care. That's nice to hear.
"It's also nice to hear families talk about the fact that a little girl might say 'But, mommy, daddy, that's a girl out there.'
"And then they can have the conversation with their kid about 'You can do anything you want, and being 'different' doesn't keep your from following your dreams.'
"I love to think that conversation happens in households because of something I'm doing."
Even Kevin Harvick, who Saturday was giving her light-hearted grief after she posted the quickest time in practice, knows her impact on the sport's image. And Harvick, as rough and tough as they come, admires her spunk: "She is going to have a lot of pressure on her.
"You guys have seen it -- it's hard to ruffle her. It's hard to get her off-track from saying the right thing, and doing the right thing, because she is just really good at that...because she has had so much put on her from the beginning.
"I don't think the pressure is going to bother her. She is going to do her own thing.
"I'm sure people will write good things...and people are going to write things that aren't so good. But she is very open-minded to listening to what you say."
So the fastest guy here Sunday was only second-fast. Jeff Gordon.
And he was gracious as usual, and self-deprecating at getting beaten at this by a woman.
"We all know how popular she is, and what this will do for our sport. Congratulations," Gordon said.
"I've always been a big believer in what's good for the sport is good for all of us. So this is great for the sport.
"The rest of us will benefit.
"I'm proud to be on the front row this year side?by?side with Danica."
Patrick didn't post a fluke lap. "I didn't think anybody else had a shot," Gordon said, considering practice speeds.
"I was surprised we got as close as we did. When she made her lap, I was pretty sure that no one was going to beat that."
Tony Gibson, Patrick's crew chief, is a local-boy-made-good, who worked the last few years for Stewart and Ryan Newman before getting the nod to work with Patrick this season.
"I'm proud of her," Gibson said. "There was a lot of pressure on her to come here and qualify well, in the top six, to lock us in. I'm proud of her carrying that weight on her shoulders.
"She didn't falter. She did everything right. She hit her marks, hit her marks on the shifts, and here we are."
So the two are new together. And Patrick didn't realize the local angle until he told her. To which she quickly came back: "So
your mom's making us dinner tonight?'
To which Gibson, with laughter, replied "Mom and dad went to the tractor show. And my wife took my grandmother shopping, so she's worn out."
Patrick didn't stop: "I'll make dinner if she'll make the monkey bread. Deal?"
But then Patrick had second thoughts. "I'm not fixing anything tonight. In fact I'm probably going to have some beers.
"I think somebody is making me a sandwich. I went to Cracker Barrel and I'm glad I ate the bacon because it's probably what is keeping me alive right now. And the pole position, too. But I need a sandwich really bad."
History. The first woman to a pole in NASCAR's top division.
"You never really quite grasp history in the making at the moment," Gordon says.
Still Gordon said this bit of history was clear, and not just for winning the pole, but doing that under such pressure. As popular as Patrick is among many fans, she is equally disliked by many who consider her playing off her sex appeal and getting a ride because she's a woman not because she's a great driver.
"It's obviously a big moment in history, and a great boost for the sport," Gordon said.
But it's only one day, only a couple of laps, and Gordon warned "There are a lot of things that are going to happen prior to next Sunday. We've already seen what can happen in 15 laps of the race last night, and in testing."
"First you have to get through the duals," Gordon says, of Thursday afternoon's twin 150s, which set most of the rest of the 500 starting order.
At least Patrick and Gordon are locked into the 500...though if they crash out in the 150s and have to go to backup cars they could wind up starting in the rear of the 43-car field.
With only 45 teams here for the 500, the smallest number in years, only two men will be denied a spot.
Play it safe Thursday?
"You don't want to put your mind into protection mode, that 'I don't want to mess this car up because I want this car to be our car for the Daytona 500,'" Gordon said.
"If you want to win the Daytona 500, you have to practice like you're going to win the Daytona 500...and race in the duals like you're going to win the Daytona 500.
"Sometimes being in the front row can be a hindrance to that mindset."
Certainly with these new models practice is both necessary and a worry.
"When you look at how the race unfolded last night, I think the way that the drafting will unfold on restrictor plate tracks being up front is a premium. It always is, but I think possibly even more so this year with this aero package."
So how will Patrick do here now?
Well, remember who crashed out Saturday night -- four-time champion Gordon, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, champion Kurt Busch (for the second time in two days), all in an incident triggered by three-time champion Tony Stewart.
But regardless of how she fares the rest of SpeedWeeks, Patrick is getting kudos for being tough.
Gordon's take: "It's not about the color of your skin or your gender, it's about your abilities...and you have to prove that.
"Danica is a talented driver. She proved that by what she did in Indy-car.
"She has taken on quite a task to take on stock-cars, that are completely foreign to her. I admire somebody that's willing to take that leap.
"No different than the way I look at Sam Hornish, Juan Pablo Montoya, any of the guys that have been driving open?wheel cars most of their career and then get in a stock-car. It's completely different.
"But I love people who are willing to take chances and challenge themselves. That's the way that I look at Danica -- not just accepting a female."
Danica and Tony celebrate (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)