Danica Patrick went into the history books on Sunday afternoon when she won the pole position for the Daytona 500. Her 196.434 mph lap made her the first woman ever to win a pole for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event. With her record-setting performance has come hoards of media attention and talk of what her spot on the front row means for the sport. But beyond the speculation – what exactly does it mean?
Danica is no stranger to the American public. Her Super Bowl commercials for GoDaddy.com and IndyCar success made her a household name before she ever even entered the NASCAR scene. Though she has not won a race in NASCAR, ESPN’s female sports coverage website, espnW, has a “Danica Patrick” beat writer. While the casual stick and ball sports fan might not be able tell Carl Edwards from Kevin Harvick, most can recognize the dark-haired woman in the lime green fire suit and aviators. This pop culture persona makes her the perfect woman to set this record.
Not only has her experience in the public eye given her ample preparation for the frenzy of media coverage that followed her historical performance, it has prepared the public for it as well. If a woman unknown to the everyday American had set this record, the impact would have been much less extensive.
Because Danica is already known, the question becomes less of, “Who is Danica Patrick?” and more of, “What exactly does Danica Patrick do?” This has put the focus on the sport of NASCAR in the ensuing interviews and television appearances. In the past week, Danica has appeared on everything from FOX News to Good Morning America, and countless more news outlets that never would have covered NASCAR if not for this newsworthy event. It has catapulted the sport into the eyes of thousands of television viewers who are not regular NASCAR followers. And not just on any old NASCAR race weekend – her first front row start happens to be in the biggest NASCAR race of the entire season.
Leave it to Danica to find more fame in the “Super Bowl of NASCAR.”
Whether or not Danica’s pole draws new fans to the sport is yet to be seen. But it no doubt puts the Daytona 500 deservedly in the forefront of the news in the days leading up to the event. It holds the maximum amount of potential to draw in new fans – it’s the first race of a new season with sexy new cars that are already anticipated to revive the sport.
But a lot can happen between now and Sunday’s race. Today, Danica will take the front row in the Budweiser Duel. With new cars and drivers who have not gotten much practice with them yet, there’s a big chance for the big one. And if Danica wrecks beyond repair, she gets sent to her back-up car – and per NASCAR rules, the back of the lineup.
Since the Duel is just a qualifying race for the 500 and she’s already locked in to the front row, hypothetically she could start and park, and thus save her racecar for the season-opener. But she has already made it clear that she intends to race hard today and gain as much experience in the Gen-6 car as she can for Sunday. In other words, she’s in it to win on Sunday.
If Danica falls flat on Sunday – or gets flattened today – the effect of her pole position will be quieted. New viewers and potential new fans watching just for her will not get the results they came to watch, and they likely will not stick around for more. The pole will be chalked up to a fluke, and the frenzy of attention she has drawn to the sport this week will fade away.
The pressure is certainly on for Danica. She has only raced Sprint Cup at Daytona once before, where she was caught up in a crash on lap 2 and finished 38th last year. But her pole proves her an adept driver, and her No. 10 Chevrolet is a strong car with a lot of potential. The Chevrolet Gen-6 cars have been strong at Daytona so far – Kevin Harvick won last weekend’s exhibition Sprint Unlimited race at in a Chevrolet, and the other car locked in to the front row for Sunday, the No. 24 driven by Jeff Gordon, is also a Chevy.
But at restrictor-plate tracks like Daytona, a lot is left to chance. Danica could be the fastest car out there, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time could catch her up in a crash and take her out of the race completely.
Her pole has brought the limelight this sport deserves in its biggest week, but just what it will mean for the future of NASCAR only time will tell. One thing is for sure, she has a lot on the line this Sunday – and so does NASCAR.