DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Just about everyone involved with today’s Daytona 500 has enjoyed the spotlight Danica Patrick brought to NASCAR in the past week.
Everyone has been along for the ride as the first woman to win a pole position for a Sprint Cup Series race. With one magical lap a week ago she drove stock car racing beyond the sports pages to network news and entertainment outlets.
But when the season-opening race takes the green flag at 1 p.m., the other 42 drivers will be more focused on themselves.
Patrick’s pole speed of 196.434 mph was certainly historic. But it was just one lap around Daytona International Speedway. The Daytona 500 is 200 laps long, and it requires more than a fast car. It takes patience and perseverance; luck and longevity; and more than anything else, a friend.
A newly-designed race car, called Generation 6, brings back manufacturer identities. They also bring a different way to race. The two-car tandems haven’t worked well in last week’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race, two 150-mile Budweiser Duels qualifying races or during most of the practice sessions. But the only way to get to the front is to work in groups, and that means having complete confidence in a drafting partner.
As a rookie, Patrick may have trouble finding such a partner.
“When I was a rookie coming in Jeff (Gordon) told me quickly: There may be some of that going on where guys won’t work with rookies, but the biggest reason that Jeff said he wouldn’t work with a rookie was that they make the wrong moves,” Jimmie Johnson said.
Patrick learned that quickly last Thursday during the 150-mile qualifying race when she started on the pole and couldn’t hook up with anyone in the first few laps. She quickly lost the lead draft and was shuffled to the back. She finished 17th in that race.
Crew chief Tony Gibson elected to put his driver in the outside lane for the start of the 500, which will put her in the preferred groove from the start. After that, it will be up to her to stay there.
She knows she will have to earn respect and confidence in the first 300 miles if she expects to get any help at the end.
“You’ll take anybody you can get,” Patrick said. “It really doesn’t matter. It’s a little bit different now that we’re not bump-drafting. So it’s not like you have people that you feel more comfortable with or not. It’s not pushing the air. So I think I will take anyone you can get to try and pull out and pass people. It’s going to take a fair amount of them.”
Gordon will start second, Kevin Harvick is third, followed by Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle.
Kasey Kahne in sixth, Juan Pablo Montoya in seventh, Austin Dillon in eighth, Johnson in ninth and Clint Bowyer in 10th.
The demands coming after last week’s qualifying session have been overwhelming. Her public relations team said she had more than 50 national interview requests before last Thursday’s Duels.
Patrick, however, has thrived in the limelight, Gibson said.
“It really hasn’t been that bad,” he said. “I certainly see it more for her, but she really thrives off that. This is when she’s at her best.”
Gibson is a 38-year-old veteran of more than 20 racing seasons. He was born across the street at Halifax Medical Center and has a reverence for his hometown track. He hasn’t allowed the extra attention during the week to hamper his preparations.
“I’ve worked with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and that was big, too,” Gibson said. “This has a lot of hype, a lot of recognition.
“But we didn’t come here to get attention. We came here to win the race.”
To do that, Patrick will have to be a quick study – at 200 mph. She also will have to learn when to safe and smart, and when to be aggressive.
“I was saying earlier that I think one of the things that I have worried a little bit too much about on these speedways is being really fair and caring about every single driver out there and trying to show them I’m loyal being behind them or things like that,” she said. “What you end up noticing with a lot of the guys up front is they go. When other drivers see someone that wants to go, they want to go with them. I think I need to be a little more aggressive from that standpoint and stop worrying so much about being n line and being loyal and worry more about getting to the front if I’m not there for some reason.”
To get to the front, especially at the end of the race, will require a friendly push.
“I would use her just like I would use any other driver, honestly,” Denny Hamlin said. “We’re not out there drafting with each other because we like each other. It’s because we’re using each other to get where we want to go.”
Patrick is the only woman to win an IndyCar Series race. Montoya has an IndyCar background, including a victory in the Indianapolis 500. He learned quickly none of that means much in stock cars. So Patrick won’t be given any preferential treatment.
“When the green flag drops, it’s the same feel for everyone,” he said.