On Sunday, Danica Patrick won the pole position for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500 – the first and most important race of the year. This is a significant accomplishment on its own for any second-year driver – one who has never competed in a full Sprint Cup season – to achieve the starting position at the hallowed Florida racetrack. Daytona is not only the first race of the long NASCAR season; it’s the most iconic event in the sport – at which legacies are written. Danica Patrick isn’t simply one of the fifty-five other drivers to sit on the pole at Daytona. She happens to be the first woman to win the pole there, as well as the first woman to win any NASCAR Sprint Cup (the highest division in stock-car racing) pole position on any track.
Danica was the fastest driver on Sunday, not just the fastest girl. And with a qualifying speed of 196.434 mph around the 2.5-mile Daytona track, Patrick’s car was the star of the show. Danica herself said that this result was the product of 90% car and 10% driver.
Patrick has only raced in ten total Sprint Cup races and lacks the career experience that many of the other drivers possess. She also has to deal with the massive distractions of being NASCAR’s version of Tim Tebow in the eyes of ESPN, dating the defending two-time Nationwide Series champ and fellow NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and being a highly-marketable celebrity in a sport that rarely sells anything above the Mason-Dixon Line. NASCAR is in desperate need of a crossover star that can transcend the stigma of being a NASCAR driver. And they’re hoping that Danica can assume that role.
Many of NASCAR’s loyal (and boy, are they loyal) fans have begun to dislike Danica due to the endless media coverage. Just like Tebow or Jeremy Lin before her, she doesn’t do anything differently than any other athlete in her sport would. She just happens to be different and moves the proverbial ratings needle. But most would argue that the day-to-day coverage of her is not warranted for a driver with her resume. The question asked by these oversaturated fans is a valid one: Why does this driver, whose best finish in a Sprint Cup race is 17th, get this much attention? But now that she’s actually achieved a sliver of a result on the sport’s highest level, this criticism of her becomes less and less necessary.
Danica would probably gladly trade all of this current attention of winning the pole at Daytona for a win at Fontana or Watkins Glen. Of the last ten pole-sitters at Daytona, the average finish was 19th. And of the 54 times that the Daytona has been run, the starting placeholder has only won nine times. The final feat for Danica won’t be to achieve the pole position; the feat will be to see if she can actually win. A result at Daytona – a combination of teamwork from her and her crew, a damn fast car, and a partner that will allow her to draft with them – will mean more than the novelty of her being a woman. Winning the pole position does not demand the respect and adulation of an already unwilling fan base. Actually winning a race on the highest level of American motorsport will. This result is noteworthy and should be celebrated, but a win at Daytona would be truly historic.