Danica Patrick got just about everything she wanted out of the Daytona 500.
Except she didn’t lead the first lap.
And she didn’t know how to win it.
“I’ll learn more for next time,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had a great grasp of how-do-you-win-this-race.”
Jimmie Johnson did. Of course, he did. The five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion won the biggest stock car race in the world for the second time on Sunday, thundering to the finish line in his powerful No. 48 Chevrolet, ahead of the duo of Greg Biffle and Patrick, who couldn’t get organized to form a last-lap charge, and a steaming freight train led by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin.
“I had a lot of confidence those final two laps leading the train,” Johnson said. “I knew just how fast this car was.”
Patrick entered the final lap third and finished eighth , disappointing casual fans who tuned into the race to watch her, the first woman to start on the pole for the Daytona 500 — any NASCAR race, in fact — attempt to outduel the biggest names in the sport. But she still notched a lap led and the best finish ever by a woman in a Cup race.
“At the end of the day, it was a solid day for the GoDaddy car and the GoDaddy crew,” she said. “We stayed basically in the top 10 all day long. I can’t really complain about that. It was nice. It was calm most of the time.”
The former IndyCar driver, perhaps best known for her provocative Super Bowl commercials for car sponsor GoDaddy.com, led the field to the green flag. But she had chosen the outside line and couldn’t hold it, giving up the lead to Jeff Gordon. She didn’t get another chance at the lead until almost midway through the 200-lap race, when she assumed it by powering past Darrell Waltrip out of a restart.
Fans in the infield and grandstand gave her an ovation as her glow-green No. 10 thundered past the start/finish line, watching the first woman to lead a lap in the 55-year history of the Daytona 500.
“When I say I wanted to lead, it’s just because I was disappointed I didn’t do it right off the bat like I should have, not just because I was a girl,” Patrick said. “A stat I found interesting was that only 13 people, including me, have led a lap at both Indy and Daytona. I’m honored. But these are things that happen along the way. I’m on a quest to be the best driver, to be up front and in Victory Lane. These things happen. But it’s not the ultimate goal.”
Johnson got the ultimate goal — the victory. He shook off a lackluster past six years at the Daytona 500, winning NASCAR’s debut of its “Gen-6” car, the latest competition vehicle in the series. The new car may have had an underwhelming debut — there was little passing, perhaps as the drivers didn’t want to put their complete trust in it to punch a reliable hole in the air — but Johnson, who started ninth , knew how to coax speed out of it.
“The speed our car had on it allowed us to control the race all day,” he said. “I felt like I was sitting on something all day. I was ready to have some fun with it when I counted, and I did.”
Patrick was ready to have fun, too, but she never got a chance. Or never gave herself a chance.
She didn’t dare drop out of line to try to pass, afraid no one would go with her and give her the “push” draft she would need to keep speed with the line of cars. Instead, she played the waiting game. But perhaps for too long.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about what you’re going to do when that opportunity comes,” she said. “You know, it’s just tough to tell. You needed a hole. You needed people to help you out. I had a little bit of help here and there. I felt if I were to dive low, I had a feeling I was going to get freight-trained. It was tough to tell.”
The performance from the 30-year-old Patrick, starting her first full season in Sprint Cup (she ran 10 races last year), impressed her colleagues after a close-quarters restrictor-plate race on a track where a final-lap accident the day before sent debris into the grandstands, injuring fans.
“She’s really comfortable in the car and being close to the other drivers door-to-door,” Johnson said. “At whatever speed, she was really comfortable. She held a great wheel, took advantage of runs when she got them. She was just another car on the track. I didn’t think of her any other way. She continues to show her ability to drive race cars. She made history in fine fashion, too.”
Earnhardt Jr., who spent a lot of the late stages of the race on Patrick’s back bumper, said, “She’s going to make a lot of history all year long. It’s a lot of fun to watch her progress. I think she’s done her best work in the Cup car. To me, she seems to get a lot out of that Cup car. Every time I see her in a hectic situation, she stays calm. She’s smart about her decisions. She knew what to do today. I enjoy racing with her. It’s going to be a lot of fun having her in this series.”
Martin said, “I agree with everything Dale said. She did an incredible job today, as well as an incredible job last year. There’ll be more of that to come. And it’ll be good for the sport.”
Patrick, sitting next to Earnhardt and Martin in the media center, turned to both and said, “Thank you. That was really nice. I appreciate that.”
One more thing she got out of her day at the Daytona 500.