February 24, 2013

Patrick has earned her place in history’s front row

A fast car and Daytona 500’s fickle fates make Danica Patrick the one to watch.

Auto racing can be a dangerous sport, we were reminded amidst the flying debris at Daytona on Saturday.

And that’s just one more reason to admire and to appreciate what Danica Patrick will try to do Sunday.

There are no ladies’ tees at the Daytona 500. There is no synchronized NASCAR.

Yet Patrick will begin the 55th running of the Daytona 500 from the front row pole position, a historic first. She earned the pole last weekend while reaching a speed in excess of 196 mph.

NASCAR old-schoolers will leap to remind us that Danica’s page in history doesn’t guarantee her anything Sunday other than an interesting first lap, and they are probably correct. A fast qualifying run usually means a fast car, which could well mean that her racing team partner Tony Stewart is poised for a historic day of his own.

Stewart has won just about everything in NASCAR — three Sprint Cup Series championships, 47 checkered flags in Cup races and 18 sundry events at Daytona International Speedway alone. But he’s never won the Daytona 500.

After the Stewart-Haas Racing team dazzled with their equipment all week, Tony Stewart didn’t even want to take his car out of the garage for Saturday’s final practice run.

“We’ve made it through the whole week without a scratch on that car,” Stewart explained, “and it’s about as ready as it can get.”

The smart money Sunday, therefore, will be on Stewart. But if you want to invest in a shot at history, watch Patrick.

The Bubbas and Ricky Bobbys of the sport may still snicker, but the Danica circus side show is over. She has a face that belongs on billboards, but Patrick, the race car driver, has moved on from that.

NASCAR has shown her no “ladies first” courtesies, as Danica knew they wouldn’t. If anything, her fellow drivers on the Cup circuit have been quick to praise Patrick for her assertiveness, her determination. The notion that Cup stock cars would be too big, too unruly, for her 5-foot-2, 100-pounds-or-so frame has proved to be unfounded.

She’s a strong woman, and we’re not just talking about her grip on the steering wheel. Patrick was just a kid when, with the help of Houston oil tycoon John Mecom Jr. (the original owner of the New Orleans Saints), she relocated to England to learn how to become a better race driver.

She’s paid her dues and earned her spot in Sunday’s 43-driver field. What happens from there, as Stewart can attest, is up to her and fate.

Stewart finished second in the 2004 Daytona 500. He was leading the final lap in 2008 before finishing third. And in 2009, he was seventh, despite leading the race for 107 laps.

Stewart’s frustrations are part of the lore and legend of the so-called “Great American Race.” Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace, both with unquestioned NASCAR credentials, have never won the Daytona 500.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. didn’t win the Daytona 500 until he was 46. Trevor Bayne won in 2011 on the day after his 20th birthday.

Who says a steely, 30-year-old woman can’t win?

She will ride with history Sunday, no question. But sitting with her will be NASCAR’s future. A victory by Patrick on Sunday would make news around the world. A mere solid, top-10 showing could fuel the sport for the rest of the Cup season.

Her fellow drivers seem to know that. Stories from Daytona last week abounded about the fans, many of them young girls, who came to the Stewart-Haas garage for a peek at Danica. Gordon and Carl Edwards both took their daughters to meet her.

Dads, take note:

Your little girl’s next sports hero just drove 196 mph.

Watch Danica Patrick well Sunday. It’s history.

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