Danica Patrick poses with the pole winner sign after becoming the first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole position on Feb. 17, 2013. / Chris Graythen, Getty Images
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Danica Patrick keeps making history.
Patrick, who has made headlines since Speedweeks began while fielding questions about her relationship with fellow Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has made headlines again - for doing something on the track.
She became the first woman to win the pole position for the Daytona 500 - and a Sprint Cup event - on Sunday when the rookie posted a lap of 196.434 mph.
"Pride. I'm proud of all the hard work that goes into making a pole car," Patrick said. "I'm happy for them (the team). It was a fast Chevy. ... If you're anywhere but the front row, it's hard to see on race day. ... This just speaks volumes about Stewart-Haas Racing. I thought we were going to be 1-2-3 for a while."
The previous best starting position for a female in the Daytona 500 was 18th by Janet Guthrie.
Guthrie also held the record for the top starting spot by a female in a Cup race. Guthrie qualified ninth in 1977 at Talladega Superspeedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. There have been only two previous poles for women in NASCAR history. Patrick, who won the Nationwide Series pole position at Daytona last year, and Shawna Robinson in a Nationwide race in Atlanta in 1994.
Patrick was quickest in qualifying practice on Saturday.
When she emerged from her car Sunday, she said: "I've only done Cup qualifying here once before (last year) ... this has been very straightforward, very predictable and consistent," Patrick said Sunday. "I hope it's enough."
Enough it was.
Jeff Gordon posted a lap of 196.292 in another Chevrolet and sits on the outside of the front row.
"Congratulations to Danica," Gordon said. "I can say I was the fastest guy today."
She went out eighth of 45 drivers trying to qualify for the Great American Race in Sunday's session.
The six fastest qualifiers are assured a spot in the field.
She promptly knocked off teammate and team owner Tony Stewart, who went out first and posted a 195.925 mph lap on a windy day when temperatures hovered around 50 degrees.
Trevor Bayne, who became the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500 in 2011, was third.
The Chevrolets of Stewart-Haas Racing clearly were ahead of the field. Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman also posted laps fast enough to make the top six. Newman at 195.946 was fourth, and Stewart fifth.
"Danica obviously was good in practice, better than us," Newman said. "She's had the best session so far this weekend."
Gordon teammate Kasey Kahne rounded out the top six at 195.852.
"I wish I could say it was her, or myself, or Ryan today, but it's those guys in the engine shop," Stewart said. "To come here and have that composure, she's got to do her part too and she did a really good job."
Stenhouse watched from pit road and later ran a lap of 195.537 as Patrick watched from a TV booth before an interview.
"Don't get me wrong, I still want the pole," Patrick said after watching Stenhouse qualify. "I think he'll be happy with that time."
Actually, it didn't matter. Due to NASCAR's new qualifying rules, Stenhouse made the race thanks to the owner points former No. 17 driver Matt Kenseth earned for the car last year.
When Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip asked Patrick to compare winning the Daytona 500 pole to winning the Indianapolis 500 pole, she responded:
"It would definitely be a high point memory. I think Daytona has such a legendary following. Somebody said winning the pole for the Daytona 500 was the fourth-biggest race. It's clearly a very important moment in the year," she said. "... What the fans need to understand is we're holding it wide open, but it's not just a car. There's so many little things the team does to be ready to go out there."
Stenhouse said after qualifying: "I think we've got a good race car; I'm looking forward to the duels."
Said Patrick of Stenhouse on Fox: "He's never been another number. ... He's somebody I feel like at any point in time racing against him the last few years, we've always had a lot of respect. We have a lot in common. I asked him, 'Do you think we're very similar?' And he said, 'No.'"
The former IndyCar driver, who won an open-wheel race in that series in Japan in 2008 and became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500, ran 10 Cup races for team owner Stewart last season to help prepare for her full-time debut this year.
"I think it shows how hard Stewart-Haas Racing has worked on this new car," Patrick said of how fast the team was Sunday. "I think there's a lot to be proud of there. ... Obviously Hendrick has done a really good job giving us good engines."
Stewart, who said it would be difficult to judge how the car handles in those conditions for a Daytona 500 setup, put a jacket on as soon as he got out of his car. He said it was harder to stay warm since a crew member had busted the zipper on his driver's suit.
The Budweiser Duels are next for Patrick on Thursday, but neither she nor Gordon will have to worry about racing all out for position, with their spots on the front row secured.
"It's really nice to know that no matter what happens in those duels, you're in," Patrick said. "You put so much into qualifying, and then for the most part other than the front row, it's over. And you have to race for it, and it's such a crap shoot."
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