Sometimes the media obsession with Danica Patrick goes laughably over the top; but it's hard to argue that for once, the media meltdown over Danica at Daytona isn't actually justified.
On Thursday she was the focus of attention for being on the receiving end of the first hard race wreck of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. As she walked away sore but unharmed from a frightening head-on impact with the infield SAFER barrier, everyone was wondering whether this would shake her confidence going into the weekend's Cup and Nationwide races.
Patrick answered the only way she knew how - on the track - and as emphatically as anyone possibly could, by sweeping pole position for Saturday's Drive4COPD Nationwide Series season opener on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, her first series outing as a full-time NASCAR driver.
Danica Patrick's time of 49.250s (182.741mph) was seven-thousandths of a second ahead of Trevor Bayne, which means that Patrick is the first female driver to claim pole in a Nationwide event since Shawna Robinson at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March 1994.
But as far as Patrick was concerned, the biggest upside of clinching pole position was nothing to do with the record books, but about the edge it gives her on pit road for the race.
"No more wondering where my pit is with a sea of pit signs!" was her first thought. "It's nice to start at front of the pack so there will be a lot less chance of problems," she added, while stressing that it wouldn't affect the team's race strategy.
As the 35th of 50 drivers to set their qualifying time, Patrick had to watch on expecting to be knocked off the top at any moment by the remaining 15 runners.
"It seemed like a hundred, didn't it?" she said. "One of the engineers was writing down lap times as he heard them, and he was like: 'All right, we dodged that bullet,'" she continued. "I definitely didn't know it was the pole until the last car crossed the line."
Even Bayne didn't begrudge ceding pole position to Danica on this occasion.
“It's so cool for her to start off her season that way,” said Bayne. “She's looking for that boost. With her running full-time, that's the kind of momentum you need to build on."
Elliott Sadler and Dale Earnhardt Jr. start on the second row of the grid, and Sadler said that he had been impressed by the polesitter's performance: "In the last 24 months, I think she's the most improved driver we've had, in all three series," he said unequivocally.
Nationwide Series rookie Austin Dillon starts from fifth place, alongside Sam Hornish Jr. who, like Patrick, is a former IndyCar Series driver.
Morgan Shepherd, Derrike Cope, Erik Darnell, Scott Speed, Mike Harmon, Donnie Neuenberger and Chase Miller all failed to make the 43-car grid for Saturday afternoon's race.
Full qualifying times
and starting positions are available.