A year after making her Sprint Cup Series debut in the same race, Danica Patrick will lead the field to the green flag for the Daytona 500 after qualifying on the pole during Sunday's front row qualifying session at Daytona International Speedway.
It wasn't necessarily a surprise. Patrick posted the fastest speed of Saturday's two qualifying practices and ran slightly faster during her second qualifying lap on Sunday, knocking owner and teammate Tony Stewart from the provisional pole. She's the first woman to win a pole position in Sprint Cup Series history.
Patrick, who went out 8th of 45 drivers, had to withstand challenges from her other teammate, Ryan Newman, and Jeff Gordon, who will start alongside her on the front row. Patrick's speed was 33 thousandths of a second faster than Gordon's.
Perhaps most importantly, Patrick's qualifying run means she doesn't have to worry about qualifying for the Daytona 500 in Thursday's qualifying races. Patrick, who is running full-time in the Sprint Cup Series for the first time in 2013, was potentially at risk of missing the race with a poor performance on Thursday. While the odds of missing the race were slim – 45 cars are attempting to capture one of the 43 available starting positions – Patrick's performance Thursday has no bearing on her appearance in the 500.
Those two Budweiser Duel races set the field for the rest of the starting lineup for next Sunday's 500 mile race, with the first race setting odd-numbered positions 3-31 and the second race marking who will start in the even-numbered positions 4-32. The rest of the field will be filled out via qualifying speeds from Sunday's single car runs and provisionals.
Last year, Patrick officially started 29th, but was forced to start in the back of the field after crashing during her qualifying race and was caught up in a crash on lap three of the 500 after Elliott Sadler and Jimmie Johnson made contact. (If Patrick crashes again in Thursday's race and is forced to go to a backup car, she'll once again have to start in the back of the pack.) Patrick also started on the pole in last year's season opening Nationwide Series race, but crashed after contact with then-teammate Cole Whitt.
While some fans tire of all-things Danica Patrick, given her motorsports ubiquity, her qualifying effort guarantees to keep her in the spotlight for the next seven days leading up to the most famous race of the NASCAR season. However, as Patrick has garnered a lot of media attention in the recent weeks for her relationship with fellow driver and Rookie of the Year contender Ricky Stenhouse, this time, the attention will be because of her success on the track. And no matter your opinion of her, that's a good thing.
Follow Nick Bromberg on Twitter at @NickBromberg
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