DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick broke into a huge grin when asked if her blazing, chart-topping speed in practice for the Daytona 500 pole qualifying made her the odds-on favorite to win one of NASCAR's biggest prizes.
Everyone else sure considered her effort in Saturday's season-opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Daytona International Speedway to be a strong statement for Sunday's Daytona 500 pole qualifying.
Patrick's fast lap of 196.220 mph in the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet came during single car runs in the second practice. The car was so good, the Rookie of the Year candidate only made four laps on the day.
PRACTICE SPEEDS: See the full list
"I suppose being the fastest going into qualifying is as good as you can hope for, but I also understand that it's a whole other day,'' an obviously pleased Patrick told reporters at the conclusion of practice. "But we could go out there on the track and for some reason not have as much speed as we hoped for. We could be in an unfortunate situation (Sunday) with wind or weather temperatures or clouds. I understand that, but we've done everything we can to prepare for it."
It almost sounded as if Patrick was just preparing for any eventuality -- hedging her bets -- because she is a legitimate favorite for NASCAR's most celebrated pole position. And the team's performance Saturday was hardly a surprise. She was among the fastest during a winter test session at Daytona International Speedway in January and was third fastest in Saturday's morning session.
Her Stewart-Haas Racing team owner, Tony Stewart, was second fastest Saturday, albeit a full 8/10ths of a second slower than Patrick. Toyota's Kyle Busch had the third fastest lap with the Chevrolets of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray rounding out the top five in single car runs.
This was a different car than Patrick drove in testing, boosting her confidence even more. She was quick to point out her team's preparation and the obvious homework by the Hendrick engine department that powered five of Saturday's fastest nine cars.
"This car was good in the wind tunnel and you always hope the numbers in the wind tunnel translate to speed on track and it did,'' Patrick said. "I guess that's kind of the way it's gone here in Daytona for us. Everything we think is going to work a certain way is working the way we expect it to and that's not always the case.
"So everything seems to be going really, really smoothly."
Patrick became NASCAR's first female pole-winner at Daytona last year when she earned the pole in the season-opening NASCAR Nationwide Series race. If she tops qualifying Sunday, she would be the first Rookie of the Year candidate to win a Daytona 500 pole since Jimmie Johnson in 2002.
Perhaps as importantly for Patrick, securing a front-row start would take the pressure off in competing in the Feb. 21 Duel at Daytona qualifying races that set the rest of the 500 field.
"It would be really nice, it's a very big pole out of all of them during the year for attention and especially for GoDaddy. ? That's who that helps the most,'' Patrick said. "There are other races throughout the year that as a driver you feel more proud of yourself to get, but this is a whole team effort. I don't give much credit to myself for driving and turning left; it's very much about the car and the engine.
"The pole at Daytona is very much a team goal. I think being fastest on the chart, being fast in general just shows everybody else how serious (crew chief) Tony Gibson is with his guys and he wants to get me a pole and do absolutely everything he can."
Pole qualifying will take place Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET and will set the front row for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500.
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