DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick had been down this road before.
She had blazed trails in open-wheel racing when she became the first woman to lead a lap at the Indianapolis 500 in her 2005 debut, and was the first woman to win a major closed-course auto race in a 2008 IndyCar Series event in Japan.
But those glittering accomplishments may have taken a back seat to Patrick’s latest gender-barrier breakthrough Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, when she made NASCAR history by becoming the first woman to win the pole for a Sprint Cup race.
And it wasn’t just any Sprint Cup race.
Patrick, 30, of Roscoe, Ill., claimed the pole for NASCAR’s biggest event — the season-opening Daytona 500 — when she hugged the apron around the high-banked, 2.5-mile trioval and turned a fast lap of 196.434 miles per hour. It shifted the media attention away from Patrick’s off-track relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a fellow Rookie of the Year contender who qualified 12th fastest, and put in sharp focus her own ability and prospects to win the 55th Daytona 500 on Sunday.
“I’ve been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things,’’ said Patrick, who took a quantum leap from Indy cars to stock cars three years ago when she signed to drive a limited Nationwide Series schedule for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I just really hope that I don’t stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make. We are excited to do it.’’
Needing a solid qualifying attempt to avoid having to race her way into the 43-car grid in Thursday’s Budweiser Duels, a pair of 150-mile qualifying heats, Patrick cemented a front-row spot alongside Jeff Gordon, who qualified second (196.292) despite sharing the same Chevy power plants supplied by Hendrick Motorsports.
“At least I can say I was the fastest guy today,’’ Gordon joked.
“It’s great to be a part of history with Danica being on the pole,’’ added Gordon, who will be starting on the front row at Daytona for the fourth time in his career. “We all know how popular she is, what this will do for our sport.’’
When Patrick climbed out of her No. 10 Chevrolet, fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing, she was quick to credit crew chief Tony Gibson and her team for preparing a car that consistently topped the speed charts during the final two practice sessions Saturday, making her a strong contender to win the pole.
“I appreciate the recognition, but it really falls 90 percent on Tony and the guys and maybe 10 percent on me,’’ Patrick 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. Outside of that, I think it shows how well-prepared Tony and everybody was.’’
Gibson deflected any praise.
“We gave her a product that was really good and she took it the rest of the way,’’ he said. “It’s more than 10 percent, I promise you. It’s 50-50.”
“I’m proud of her,’’ Gibson added. “I know there was a lot of pressure on her to come here and qualify well — in the top six — to lock us in. I’m proud she carried that weight on her shoulders. She didn’t falter. She did everything right.
“She hit her marks, hit her marks on the shifts, and here we are.’’
It capped a particularly pleasing effort for car owner Tony Stewart, who placed all three of his cars in the top five after he qualified fifth (195.925) behind teammate Ryan Newman (195.946).
“I think all three of us ran great laps,’’ Stewart said. “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.’’
Patrick relished the opportunity when she heard rival car owner Richard Childress say the pole was hers to lose.
“I didn’t think anybody else had a shot,’’ Gordon said. “I was surprised we got as close as we did.’’
And yet, Patrick expressed having some nerves, some of which stemmed from the haunting memory of her Indy 500 debut in ’05 when she was considered a favorite to win the pole after consistently topping the speed charts in practice.
During time trials, Patrick was derailed when a strong gust of wind scrubbed speed off her qualifying attempt.
“In fact, I thought about Indy ’05, thought about how I was the favorite to win the pole going in,’’ Patrick said. “I thought, ‘You know what? Maybe I wasn’t ready.’ Maybe my life would have changed and had been different because of that happening or whatever.
“I just feel like I’m comfortable, I’m cool. I’ve been around for a long time now,’’ she said. “Maybe now was the time.’’