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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The new wonder girl is on the front row for the Daytona 500 with the old wonder boy.
In recent years, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon (Dale Earnhardt dubbed him "wonder boy" two decades ago) has taken a backseat to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champ.
On Pole Day Sunday, Gordon took a backseat to a little lady in green. Danica Patrick became the first woman ever to win a pole in Cup, and she did it in NASCAR's biggest event.
Even Ella Gordon, Jeff's 5-year-old daughter, wanted a picture with Danica.
"I can say I was the fastest guy today," Gordon said. "Congrats to Danica. It's great to be part of history. I'm proud to be on the front row with her."
|No. 2 qualifier Jeff Gordon congratulates Daytona 500 pole winner Danica Patrick. They'll share the front row in next Sunday's Great American Race.|
Gordon is a three-time winner of the 500, starting on the front row for the fourth time. He is a future Hall of Famer, ranking third on the all-time wins list with 87 victories.
But Gordon has been around long enough to know all eyes Sunday were on Patrick, a woman with no NASCAR victories, making her second Daytona 500 start.
"I'm surprised you guys are even talking to me right now," Gordon said. "I'm glad I didn't win the pole. I would have messed this story all up. As popular as she is, this will bring our sport a tremendous amount of exposure. It's huge."
This may become a trivia question a few years from now: Who started on the front with Danica Patrick the year she won the pole for the Daytona 500?
Gordon hopes he's the answer to a different trivia question that results from the race next weekend: Who won the Daytona 500 the year Danica Patrick became the first woman to win the pole?
"We're here to win the Daytona 500," Gordon said. "Sitting on the front row is a great accomplishment toward that goal. Now we have to find out everything we need from this car to win the 500. We have to get through the duel [Thursday's qualifying race]."
Gordon and Patrick will start on the front row for the Daytona 500 no matter what happens in their qualifying races.
"But we can't tear up this race car," Gordon said. "We have to learn all we can in the duel to show how competitive we are and show everyone else we have what it takes to win."
Including Patrick. She's bound to be a little nervous when the green flag falls next weekend as she starts the event next to one of the all-time greats.
So what would Gordon say to her about starting on the point?
"I would tell her the same thing I tell myself," Gordon said. "A lot is going to happen prior to next Sunday. First is getting through the duel. I know I won't breathe until a see the green flag."
Gordon turned a qualifying lap at 196.292 mph, just a tick slower than Patrick's 196.434-mph lap. He wasn't the least bit surprised to see Patrick win the pole.
"I didn't think anybody else had a shot after watching her in practice [Saturday]," Gordon said. "I was surprised we got as close as we did. I didn't think we had a shot at the front row, so I'm happy."
Gordon knew this was a day to give someone else the glory. He had nothing but praise for Patrick.
"It's not about the color of your skin or your gender," Gordon said. "It's about ability. Danica has proven she's a talented race car driver."
Gordon has been where Patrick is today -- the center of attention, trying to take it all in and make the most of it.
And, of course, he wants to win the Daytona 500. But at age 41, a proud father competing in his 21st season, the limelight doesn't matter much to him now.
"As I get older, the thing that matters most to me is to make other people proud," he said. "My parents, my wife, my kids. That's what's important to me now. And the one thing left for me is to win another championship."
Maybe he will. Maybe not. But Gordon sees the big picture of a day like this one when a woman won the pole for the Daytona 500.
"I've always been a big believer in what's good for the sport is good for all of us," Gordon said. "You never completely get a grasp of history in the making, but we all will benefit from this moment."