DAYTONA BEACH, Calif.— Oh my.
All those NASCAR traditionalists probably have their restrictor plates in a knot today.
Danica Patrick in on the pole for the 55th running of the Daytona 500.
In a sport originally fueled by moonshiners, Danica brings a whole different jug of jungle juice to the world of NASCAR. Fans love her; fans hate her. Same deal with drivers.
So in the ultimate “jealous much?” twist of irony, Danica blew up the Internet again just days after she dwarfed every driver during Media Day at Daytona International Speedway because of her romance with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
She became the first woman to earn the pole position for the storied Daytona 500, to be run next Sunday. It’s also the first time a woman has been on the pole of any NASCAR race. It’s a great honor, but the restrictor-plate madness at Daytona can bump you off the fast track in a hurry.
The deal gets a whole lot crazier on Sunday: Danica will be joined by 42 other drivers, jockeying round-and-round in a 200-lap/500-mile race.
But it’s important to let this moment percolate for a while.
Danica isn’t just dating one of the NACAR boys.
She’s faster than all of them.
“I can say I was the fastest guy today,” joked Jeff Gordon, who qualified second.
Gordon (a lap of 45.924 seconds, good for 195.976 mph) got squeezed out by Danica (45.817/196.434 mph) in other ways because his daughter Ella Sofia asked to pose for a picture with the First Lady of Racing.
Despite any wails of protest, this is great business for everybody: FOX Sports, the Speedway, NASCAR.
The sport may still struggle to find the “It Guy.” But there is no question who is the “It Girl.”
“This is great,” Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood said. “Track presidents _ you take that title away _ we were always promoters first. And promoting is about publicity and attention and getting people focused on something. We want every eyeball. We want every consumer showing up. We want everybody coming to the Daytona 500. And for me, every tool possible.”
Hello, Danica, who at 30 is accustomed to the double-edged twist of fame. She is the only woman to win a race in the IndyCar Series, holds the highest finish (third) by a woman in the Indianapolis 500,and is the only woman to lead a lap during the Indianapolis 500.
Crossing over to NASCAR is challenging, but she’s got an A-team boost from Stewart-Haas Racing. They had three of the fastest five cars during Sunday’s qualifying runs. Ryan Newman was fourth, and owner/driver Tony Stewart was fifth.
Even Stewart, who can be as snarky as they come, understands the historical relevance.
“We’re proud for her, too,” he said. “That’s a huge accomplishment. It’s not like it’s been 15 or 20 years she’s been trying to do this. It’s her second trip to Daytona here in a Cup car. She’s made history in the sport.”
One of the most frequent shots at Danica is that she never turns down a photo op or marketing opportunity. She unabashedly cashes in on her good looks with all those GoDaddy commercials, which make her occasional complaints about getting labeled a “sex symbol” sound more than slightly disingenuous.
But a race track levels the playing field. It will swallow up pretty girls who think they belong. Same deal with the boys.
The lap times on Sunday say that Danica belongs. And she certainly is up to all the scrutiny that comes with the fact that she is now the alpha dog for the 55th running of the Great American Race. Catch me if you can.
“I love when people put me on their radar,” she said. “It’s good.”
Bring it on, boys.