For most NASCAR fans a traumatic experience is switching from Coors to Miller. Accepting a woman driver at the Daytona 500? Ridiculous.

But Danica Patrick accomplished the feat Sunday afternoon, becoming not only the first woman to earn the pole position at The Great American Race, but the first woman to lead the field for at least one lap and the first to capture a Top 10 finish after completing the 500-mile race in eighth place.

Things didn’t start off great for Patrick, inadvertently snubbed by actor James Franco in the starting command, when he accidentally labeled her a non-driver by shouting: “Drivers … and Danica! … Start your engines!”

And despite her starting position, she surrendered the lead on the very first turn to three-time winner Jeff Gordon. After some efficient pitting, Patrick was back in front by lap 90, and was in the Top 3 at the race’s halfway point. In the end, she got stuck behind Greg Biffle and faded down the stretch as Jimmie Johnson led a string of racers on the inside to the checkered flag.

“I felt like if I was going to dive low, I had a feeling I was going to get freight-trained,” Patrick said after the race. “At the end of the day, it was a solid day.”

Truth is, Patrick did exactly the right thing for a rookie driver on racing’s biggest stage. She raced smart and played it safe. She stayed out of trouble and showed respect for her fellow drivers. She proved that she could race with NASCAR’s best without rubbing their faces in it.

And that may be her biggest victory of them all. Going into the race, Patrick had been criticized as all style over substance and was slammed as a gimmick that couldn’t actually keep up with the big boys.

“There’s hype and everybody has bought into it,” said TV analyst Kyle Petty, son of racing legend Richard Petty. “But once you get past it, she’s just a girl standing behind the curtain like in the Wizard of Oz, working the stuff. It’s just smoke and mirrors.”

Danica Patrick SIThere’s some truth to that. In 185 races spanning eight years and three different racing classes, Patrick has won just once – at the Indy Japan 300 back in 2008. She’s more famous for her commercials and for appearances in FHM and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. At last year’s Daytona 500, she crashed on the race’s second lap.

So her solid but unspectacular showing on Sunday will go a long way to proving that she truly belongs and that she isn’t just the Michelle Wie of racing, going up against men she really has no business competing with. A solid career requires many steps, and for Patrick, Sunday at Daytona was just another step in the right direction.

Her performance Sunday made her one of only 13 people to have led at both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, which she led for 19 laps in 2005 before finishing fourth. She also joined Janet Guthrie as the only women to have competed in both races.

“She’s going to make a lot of history all year long,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second behind Johnson at Daytona.

It’s something NASCAR fans are going to have to get used to.

0 Comments | Add a Comment
*Your Name:
*Enter code:
* Comment: