Danicamania is in full bloom at Daytona – and with a brand new audience.
The first woman in history to earn the top starting spot in a race at NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup Series, Patrick will bring new fans to today’s season-opening Daytona 500.
It’s an ambassador role Danica Patrick has played since her 2005 debut at the Indianapolis 500, where she became the first woman to lead laps in the biggest race in the world. But it’s so much more now.
“You can only lead by example and I don’t necessarily want my example to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy’s world. That’s not what I am trying to say,” Patrick said. “But if you have a talent for something, do not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. Do not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different. Ignore that and let it be about what your potential is.”
And right now, she believes her potential is to win “The Great American Race.”
Patrick starts first today, next to four-time champion Gordon, and after running 32 laps in Friday’s practice and mixing it up with NASCAR’s biggest stars, she was more convinced than ever that she can be a player in the race.
“Can I win? Yeah. Absolutely,” Patrick said. “I feel comfortable in this kind of race situation. I feel comfortable in the draft. I feel comfortable that the speeds are not a problem. I know I am inexperienced. I know I am rookie out there. I will do the best job I can to win. I do believe I have a chance to win. I do believe experience would help, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a chance to win.”
Crew chief Tony Gibson was even more convinced he’s got a winner. He was part of Derrike Cope’s improbable 1990 victory, when Cope inherited the win when the late Dale Earnhnardt blew a tire on the final lap.
“She has got the talent,” Gibson said. “She’s already proven in the Nationwide Series, from what I’ve seen on the speedway stuff, she definitely gets the respect. People know she’s fast. She can draft. She knows how the air works. She gets a lot of that from IndyCar. So I have 100 percent confidence she can win the Daytona 500.
“I remember Derrike Cope, nobody gave him a chance, either, but I saw him in Victory Lane. I know it can be done.”
But the Daytona 500 is a pressure-packed race unlike anything except the Indy 500. Some of the best drivers never win it – it took seven-time champion Earnhardt 20 tries to finally get his lone win – and Tony Stewart, Patrick’s teammate and car owner, goes into toay’s race seeking his first victory in 15 tries.
He’s been quiet all week, except, of course, for the nine-car accident he started in an exhibition race last weekend. He lamented afterward, “That is why I haven’t won a Daytona 500 yet. I’m not quite sure exactly which move to make.”
Don’t be fooled, though, by the three-time NASCAR champion. Stewart might just like being out of the spotlight as he heads into one of the few races missing from his resume, and being the favorite for the 500 has never worked out for him before.
He wrapped up his practice with one final run Friday to test his race engine and wound up on top of the speed chart. It was Stewart’s intention to sit out Saturday’s final day of practice.
“I’m excited we’ve made it through the whole week without a scratch on the car,” he said. “We are as ready as you can get for the 500. I feel like we’ve got a car capable of winning the race. It’s just a matter of whether the driver does a good job with the steering wheel.”
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