DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- "Who says girls can't race?"
That's what Danica Patrick's crew chief Tony Gibson dared anyone to ask as the veteran embraced his rookie driver with a big bear hug in the minutes after Patrick's historic eighth-place run in Sunday's Daytona 500 -- the best finish ever for a woman in NASCAR's biggest race.
The feeling was also conveyed by an eclectic procession of teenagers, little girls and even grown men who cheered her with shouts of "You go, girl" while following her like some sort of racing pied piper from pit road to press interviews.
Patrick -- who also became the first woman in history to lead the Daytona 500 (twice for five laps) -- waved acknowledgements to the fans celebrating her accomplishment and appreciated Gibson's praise. But while Patrick smiled politely, she was still intensely mulling over what could have been, as she was third with one lap remaining, convinced she had a better shot at victory.
"I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say what could I have, should I have done to give myself that opportunity to win,'' Patrick said of the race's typical last-lap free-for-all.
"I think that's what I was feeling today, was uncertainty as to how I was going to accomplish that. There was plenty of times while you were cruising along and I was talking to Tony and my spotter on the radio, 'What do you see people doing, what's working, what is not?' I was thinking in the car, 'How am I going to do this? I didn't know what to do exactly.
"So I feel like maybe that's just my inexperience. Maybe that's me not thinking hard enough. I don't know. Getting creative enough. I'm not sure. I definitely was a little uncertain how I was going to be able to do it. I think (race runner-up) Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) did a nice job and shows what happens when you plan it out, you drop back, get that momentum and you're able to go to the front.
"You know, I think he taught me something and I'm sure I'll watch the race and there will be other scenarios out there that I'll see that can teach me, too.''
It's exactly the mindset that has propelled Patrick's career and resulted in her string of historic accomplishments -- from becoming the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 (as a rookie in 2005) to becoming the first female Daytona 500 pole-sitter in the race's storied 55-year history.
But that highly-driven, what-did-I-leave-on-the-table attitude is also what she hopes will put her down in the history books as a great race car driver, not only a great woman race car driver.
"I didn't even think about it being Danica, but just another car on the track that was fast and I think that's a credit to her,'' Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson said of running alongside her for much of the race.
It was high praise from the five-time Sprint Cup champion about the series' high-profile Rookie of the Year candidate. For much of the week, she had deflected credit for winning the pole position to her crew for their work in preparing the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS.
And even as she suited up Sunday afternoon for the 500, many wondered if she could really compete alongside NASCAR's best on its brightest stage.
While her fellow front-row starter Jeff Gordon slid by her before the first turn of the first lap even, she held tough and rallied to take the point twice for five laps and ran solidly among the top five and top 10 for most of the 200-lap race.
"The pole was wonderful,'' Patrick explained. "Tony Gibson and those guys are the ones that should be really proud of that one and I know they are.
"But today being able to stay up front, get to the lead at one point, just run up in the top 10, for me that was more of an accomplishment.''
Earnhardt and third-place finisher Mark Martin, who both passed her on the final lap, say they were impressed with her effort. They insisted she proved herself as capable as any of the other drivers -- race favorites and former champions among them -- on this first tough test of the 2013 season.
"She's going to make a lot of history all year long,'' said Earnhardt, her team owner in the Nationwide Series the past two years.
"It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress. I think she's done her best work in the Cup car myself. I think for whatever reason she seems to get a lot more out of that car.
"She's got a great level head. She's a racer. She knows what's coming. I enjoy racing with her. ? it's just going to be a lot of fun having her in the series.''
Even as Patrick dutifully answered questions in the post-race interview session, her body language suggested she will be thinking about this Daytona 500 for a while.
More than once she lost some positions getting off pit road and long after the checkered flag was still beating herself up a bit about not leading the first lap.
But the five laps she did lead on Sunday make her one of only 13 drivers in racing history to lead both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500.
And if it's up to Gibson, any lingering thoughts she still has about this Daytona 500 will be mostly positive.
"I'm jacked up man, that was awesome,'' Gibson said after speaking with Patrick on pit lane.
"We definitely had a shot to win it there and that's all you can ask for. You can't do nothing about those guys getting (last lap) runs on you.
"I'm so proud of Danica and everybody on the GoDaddy.com Chevy. She impressed the heck out of me all day long and the pit crew did a fantastic job. I'm just looking forward to every week, and every week we're going to get better and better.
"I'm so proud of Danica, I can't think straight right now,'' continued an overjoyed Gibson, who has worked on four Daytona 500-winning cars.
"We wouldn't let her race in the 150s or practice hard (to protect her car) so to come out here and be the first woman to sit on the pole for the Daytona 500 and the first woman to lead a lap and have the highest finish ? what else can you want?''
"She held her ground and did what she needed to do. We could have been on our roof just as easy so I'm so proud to come away with a top-10 and we will build on this.
"That's how you gain respect with these guys. There were a ton of guys that drafted with her and respected her.
"They understand she can do this.''
We apologize. We are having technical issues with our comment sections and fan community and it is temporarily unavailable. We are actively working on these issues and hope to have it up and running soon. We are also working on enhancements to provide a better forum for our fans. We appreciate your patience and apologize for the inconvenience.
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Danica Patrick
- Daytona 500