Danica Patrick managed to deliver on the hype by clinching pole position for next weekend's Daytona 500 season-opener to the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Jeff Gordon put the #24 alongside the GoDaddy.com #10, the fourth time Gordon has started on the front row in the event in his Cup career.
It's the first time that a female driver has ever claimed pole position for a Sprint Cup race. Patrick had previously become the second female driver to claim a pole in NASCAR's second-tier championship by starting from pole in last year's Nationwide Series race at Daytona. The only other female polesitter in Nationwide history was Shawna Robinson in 1994.
"Everything seemed pretty smooth, I didn't notice anything that threw me offline or made me move," she said of her qualifying laps. "The car moves around through the corner a little bit, it's hard to keep a perfect arc so you don't hit the apron."
It seemed as though her run might have benefited from some well-timed assistance from the weather conditions.
"Coming off of two, I felt like the car felt bound up. I let it out a little bit more than I would have. If that was wind, I don't know," she said. "But that was something that felt a little bit different compared to yesterday."
Patrick was quick to give the lion's share of the credit for her achievement to her crew chief Tony Gibson and his team who had build and set-up the car for her qualifying effort.
"I appreciate the recognition, but it really falls, as I think I said before I went out on the track, 90 per cent on Tony and his guys, everybody that gives me the car to go out there and be fast, and maybe 10 per cent on me," she said. "All I have to do is think about going out there, being smooth, not letting the car bind up, running on that yellow line.
"It's really amazing how much effort is put into a qualifying car for Daytona, for the 500, and really only the front row is what sticks for Sunday," she continued. "It's nice that all that hard work can pay off and that we can give ourselves that opportunity to lead the pack down into the tri-oval for the green flag of the Daytona 500."
For a time it looked like Patrick was going to be part of a Stewart-Haas Racing lock-out at the top. Team boss Tony Stewart had been the first to run on Sunday afternoon and his time was good enough to keep him on provisional pole until Patrick's qualifying laps. She was the eight of 45 drivers to make her single-car speed trial.
"The pole didn't matter to me personally," said Stewart, shrugging aside questions about whether he was put out by being knocked off pole by his rookie employee. "It was more as an owner, wanting Danica to be in the top two today. That way she's locked in, we don't have to worry about what happens on Thursday."
The team's third driver Ryan Newman was the 14th to go out on track, and he was able to pip Stewart and lay early claim to the other front row spot alongside Patrick. That status quo survived assaults by the next 15 drivers, until finally Jeff Gordon was able to dislodge Newman for second place. Newman was subsequently bumped another spot by 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, who was third fastest in qualifying.
"To have three cars in the top five like that, just really, really appreciative and excited that we were able to bring three consistent cars down like this," said the proud team co-owner after qualifying. "I'm proud of my teams, my drivers, all of our crews.
"I think all three of us ran great laps. But I don't know if she did something a little different or if it was Tony Gibson and her guys, but as a package they did a great job," continued Stewart, referring to Patrick's crew chief. "Her car, she just did a really good job of carrying speed off of turn two, where she made all of her time up was down the backstretch. Carrying that speed off of two is a big key to that."
Stewart also added a quip that made reference to Danica's recently-revealed relationship with Roush Fenway racer Rickey Stenhouse Jr.
"This will probably be a sound byte for you guys: I think Danica has two boyfriends, she has Ricky and she has Tony Gibson!" he laughed. "They are all but holding hands in the shop when they're there every day together. It's good for me to see as an owner, I like to see that chemistry."
Stenhouse ended up with the 12th fastest time of the day. However, just like Bayne, Newman, Stewart and the rest of the field, Stenhouse will still have to race for his actual starting grid position in the midweek Duel events; only Patrick and Gordon are actually locked in to their grid spots at this point, provided that they don't end up wrecking their race cars in the Duel and end up being sent to to the back next weekend for resorting to back-up cars.
"I'm going to do my best to keep it clean," said Patrick of her plan for how to tackle the Daytona 500 next week. "Keep it out of trouble, get a feel for the traffic throughout the day, and hopefully put myself in a position, position-wise and knowledge-wise, to do a good job and bring it home where it started at the end of Sunday.
"But I have a lot to learn, too," she added. "I mean, I have Jeff Gordon starting next to me. I have, oh my God, a herd of them behind me. I'm a rookie and I am going to be learning as much as I can for 499 or maybe till the last 10 laps.
"When you implement your plan, it depends where you are. Hopefully at the end of 500 we're rolling and we have a chance," she summed up. "There's so many pit stops, so much that could happen, so many ways that it could play out, there's a lot of drivers that taste victory but don't get there. You just have a love for it."Full qualifying times