DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When she was racing go-karts on the tracks near her home in Roscoe, Ill., Danica Patrick was taught that she was capable of being the fastest driver, not just the fastest girl.
“That was instilled in me when I was very young, from the beginning,’’ she said.
That approach served Patrick well as she plowed through one gender barrier after another, becoming the first woman to lead a lap in the Indianapolis 500 in her 2005 debut, the highest-qualifying (fourth in 2005) and -finishing (third in 2009) female in Indy 500 history, and the first to win a major closed-course auto race in an IndyCar Series event in Japan in 2008.
“I feel like I’ve been lucky in my career to be with good teams and have good people around me,’’ said Patrick, 30, who started out driving Indy cars eight years ago for Bobby Rahal before jumping ship to drive for Michael Andretti in 2007, then making a switch to stock cars in 2010 to drive a limited Nationwide schedule for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Now, after becoming the first woman in NASCAR history to win a Sprint Cup pole position, Patrick is perfectly positioned to become the first woman in NASCAR history to win not just any Sprint Cup race, but the sport’s crown jewel: Sunday’s 55th Daytona 500.
“I have 100 percent confidence in her skills and her ability,’’ said crew chief Tony Gibson, who was paired with Patrick for the final two races of her 10-race limited Sprint Cup schedule last season, producing a 24th at Texas and a season-high 17th at Phoenix.
“I’ve seen it in the two races we did last year. We were sitting there running 11th or 12th in Phoenix on the lead lap and running with guys I never dreamed we’d be running with. So she’s got the talent and she’s got the ability.’’
Driving for champion owner/driver Tony Stewart, for whom she’ll run full-time this season in her rookie Sprint Cup campaign, Patrick made history last Sunday when she toured the daunting, high-banked, 2.5-mile tri-oval at Daytona International Speedway with a fast lap of 196.434 miles per hour.
Having forged a strong relationship with Gibson, Patrick silenced her skeptics when she put the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing on the front row of the 43-car field.
“I think Danica has two boyfriends,” kidded Stewart. “She has Ricky [Stenhouse Jr.] and she has Tony Gibson. They are always holding hands in the shop when they’re there every day together.
“It’s good for me as an owner. I like to see that chemistry.’’
With so many elements — team, car, sponsor, crew chief — operating in unison at a perfect pitch, Patrick’s pole victory raised a larger question: Can she win the Daytona 500?
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility as long as she stays in the hunt,’’ said Janet Guthrie, 74, the trailblazing grand dame of motorsports who in 1977 became the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500.
“She seems to be getting along very well with her new crew chief and that is a large part of the battle. Her results in Nationwide and Cup last year were not stellar, but this new team situation seems to have improved things a great deal, so it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.’’
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, now an ESPN analyst, was the last driver to win the race from the pole position, in 2000.
“You just have to put yourself in a position to make that happen,’’ Jarrett said. “Can she run in the top 10 and get herself in a position? Yes, she can do that. Can she make the right moves without having been in that position before? She has the skills and she has the car, and if she does all the right things with a fast racecar, we’ve seen a lot of things can happen at the end of these races.’’
Gibson recalled Derrike Cope’s improbable victory over Dale Earnhardt in the 1990 Daytona 500 as an example.
“Nobody gave him a chance either,’’ Gibson said. “But I saw him in Victory Lane and I actually hung the body on that car so I know it can be done.’’
Then there was Trevor Bayne’s victory at Daytona two years ago when he became the youngest winner in the history of the race.
“Trevor Bayne won this race when he was 20 years old,’’ said Joie Chitwood, Daytona’s track president. “I would give Danica at least as good odds as him. People forget about Trevor Bayne. No one thought he would do anything. How can you discount her chances when she’s been racing longer?
“At the end of the day, she’s on a good team with good equipment.’’
With Hendrick-supplied engines that are as fast as — or even faster than — those of her male counterparts, Patrick has a shot because the playing field has been seemingly leveled.
Guthrie recalled how her Daytona debut was beset by one obstacle after another, beginning with a qualifying setup she described as being somewhere between “pathetic and borderline dangerous.”
After jousting with her team manager, Guthrie had him find out the proper setup for the car. It resulted in improved handling during the race that enabled Guthrie to battle from the back of the pack to within striking distance of the leaders.
“In fact, I was running eighth about 10 laps from the end when I lost a couple of cylinders and so I dropped four positions in the last 10 laps,’’ Guthrie recalled. “I probably would’ve finished seventh or eighth.’’
What would it mean if Patrick were to win the Daytona 500?
“Oh, well, that would be the biggest thing in the history of motorsports,’’ said Guthrie, indicating that it would overshadow even the obscure breakthrough of Eliska Junkova, a Czech female Grand Prix driver, who in 1928 finished fifth in the famed Targa Florio, a three-lap, 277-mile endurance race around a 67-mile course on the island of Sicily.
“She very nearly won it against some of the top Grand Prix drivers of her time,’’ Guthrie said, rattling off the names of Tazio Nuvolari, Rene Dreyfus, Ernesto Maserati, and Luigi Fagioli, all of whom were among the 25 drivers who finished behind Junkova.
“The race took something like eight hours and she led most of it. Then her water pump failed and she had to stop at just about every creek to take on more water. She didn’t win, but she made a heck of a showing.’’
When he was track president at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chitwood recalled Patrick having a similar impact when she finished fourth in her Indy 500 debut in 2005.
“What I remember was, literally, every single person standing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, cheering the fact she was leading the race,’’ Chitwood said. “It was one of those instances where you say, ‘Oh . . . my . . . gosh, is this happening?’ because a woman had never led at Indy.
“I just remember the electricity in the crowd. If she had won the race, people would’ve torn down the grandstands.’’
Patrick’s Daytona pole victory created a similar buzz, triggering a media crush that saw her conduct a four-hour satellite media tour Tuesday with CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, CNN, and ESPN.
Her star power enhanced by her appearance in 12 Super Bowl GoDaddy.com television ads, Patrick has moved the needle like no other driver. Her stock car debut in the 2010 ARCA Racing Series opener televised by Speed drew a total of 2.4 million viewers, an 87 percent increase over the previous year’s audience of 1.3 million.
Given her popularity, especially among the daughters of her fellow Sprint Cup drivers, Patrick appears to be a threat to unseat Earnhardt Jr. from his reign of 10 consecutive years as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.
When Jeff Gordon qualified second, his daughter, Ella Sofia, asked to have her photograph taken with Patrick in Victory Lane. Later, Jimmie Johnson brought his daughter, Genevieve, around to meet Patrick.
A few days before that, Carl Edwards brought his daughter, Anne, to Patrick’s motorcoach so she could meet her favorite driver. Anne wore green GoDaddy shoes and a green coat.
“Carl was saying that it was good for her to see me in real life and in person,’’ Patrick said. “Because he was like, ‘Because to her, you are like some mythical creature that doesn’t exist.’ ’’
Patrick’s popularity among the progeny of today’s established NASCAR stars could very well inspire the next generation of female drivers.
“I think you can lead by example and I don’t necessarily want my example to be to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy’s world,’’ Patrick said. “That is not what I’m trying to say, but if you have talent for something to not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. Not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different is to ignore that and let it be about what your potential is.”
Then, pausing to consider the question that has followed her since her history-making pole, Patrick said, “Can I win? Yeah, absolutely.’’
Patrick recorded the third-fastest lap (197.010) during Friday’s practice session, which was led by Stewart (197.131) and Gordon (197.075). Taking the conservative route in Thursday’s Budweiser Duel, a pair of 150-mile qualifying heats that set the field for the Daytona 500, Patrick completed 32 laps of practice and drafted with Hendrick’s four-car stable as well as her own boss.
It improved Patrick’s comfort level in the draft, so much so Gibson promised, “We are going to cut her loose on Sunday.’’
“I know I’m inexperienced, I know that I’m a rookie out there,’’ Patrick said. “I will do the best job I can. I believe I do have a chance to win. I do believe experience would help, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t have a chance to win.’’