Danica Patrick wins Nationwide pole at Daytona; gives naysayers something to chew on

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A moment of silence, if you please, for the "Danica Patrick gets gifts she doesn't deserve" argument. Cause of death: Patrick's triumphant capture of the pole for Saturday's Nationwide Series Drive4COPD 300.

Here it is: You have to either accept that Patrick is a bona fide, legit stock car driver, or you have to buy a conspiracy that the entire Nationwide field, including Daytona 500 and Sprint Cup champions, laid down for her.

"Anytime you show that you have a fast car, it's encouraging for people to want to help you," Patrick said. "That starts to earn you some respect and credibility."

The pole comes just 24 hours after

Patrick walked away from a brutal crash in the Sprint Cup Series' Gatorade Duel 150, a qualifying race for Sunday's Daytona 500.

Patrick posted a speed of 182.741 mph, besting Trevor Bayne by only seven one-thousandths of a second. As driver after driver tried and failed to match her time — the field includes Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski — Patrick fidgeted nervously in the garage, talking with Earnhardt and Stewart. Cameras swarmed her as the results became official.

[Related: Why Danica Patrick can win the Daytona 500]

"That's so cool for her to start her season that way," Bayne said. "They were looking for a boost, and that's a good kick in the butt."

In and of itself, the pole won't mean much at Daytona other than a choice pit selection. As soon as the green flag drops, drivers will jockey for position, and everyone will take a turn at the front. Still, Patrick has demonstrated that she can wheel, and as much as the drivers appreciate the attention to the sport, they acknowledge that she belongs exactly where she is.

"In the last 24 months," Elliott Sadler said, "she's by far the most improved driver we have across all three series."

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