Danica lets her driving do the talking

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kevin Harvick had a little fun at Danica Patrick's expense after winning the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

"Yeah, I think the biggest thing is, how are we going to get Danica and Ricky on the front page [Sunday]?" Harvick joked of the relationship between Patrick and fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. that had dominated headlines here to that point.

Well, that question has been answered.

Patrick took care of that in a way that overshadowed her social life, Harvick's win, the introduction of the "Gen 6" car and anything else that is likely to happen during Speedweeks.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Crew chief Tony Gibson on Danica Patrick, his Daytona 500 pole-winning driver: "To be a rookie like she is, to know all those things already, has been impressive."

She accomplished something that will have her not only on the front of the sports page, but the front page of newspapers, websites, the lead of national newscasts and television talk shows.

She set history.

The 30-year-old Stewart-Haas Racing driver became the first woman to win the pole for the Daytona 500 pole -- any Sprint Cup race, for that matter -- with a lap of 196.434 mph that bested four-time champion Jeff Gordon's 196.292.

She at least temporarily silenced her critics and those who have spent the past month making jokes about her dating a fellow driver. The moment was so big that NASCAR president Mike Helton stopped to congratulate her, while the sport's public relations machine was churning to meet all the media demands.

"I get Monday and Tuesday off," Patrick joked afterward. "I need to recoup."

Good luck with that. Even Harvick was glad to see the driver who will be his teammate next year at SHR getting the attention.

"For the right reasons," said Harvick, in his final year at Richard Childress Racing. "It shifts the focus to what they're doing as a team and on the racetrack with performance. It's a huge deal for our sport to have her on the front row of the Daytona 500.

"It definitely sets a new milestone in our sport. I'm glad it's for all the right reasons."

Patrick, for the record, never took Harvick's comments on Saturday seriously.

"I know Kevin really well, and so does Ricky," she said. "So I'm imagining it's like a big brother roll where we're kind of joking around. The people that I've heard make the jokes are my closest friends here in NASCAR."

Nobody was joking on Sunday. The sentiment throughout the garage was about respect.

"It's a pretty big day when Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. sits on the pole here," veteran driver Mark Martin said. "It's a bigger day when Danica does it, and for good reason. It's never been done."

Nobody should be surprised. Patrick was fastest in Saturday's second practice and fast here during a January test session. Harvick's team owner, Richard Childress, predicted she would win the pole on Saturday night.

And Stenhouse? He was smart enough not to bet his girlfriend on who would finish higher.

"No side bets," he said. "I don't bet when I feel I'm going to lose."

Gordon joked the story was so big that he was surprised anybody wanted to talk to him.

"I'm glad we didn't win the pole," he said. "We would have messed that story all up."

The only thing that could have messed this story up was Patrick. Drivers like to say that winning the pole for the Daytona 500 is 90 percent driver, but had she missed a step on the 10 percent, history never would have been made.

"I've seen a driver put a little too much wheel into it or be a lane up a little bit … it can make a difference," said Patrick's crew chief, Tony Gibson. "To be a rookie like she is, to know all those things already, has been impressive."

Look at it this way. Patrick's equipment was almost identical to that of team owner Tony Stewart and SHR teammate Ryan Newman. Stewart qualified fifth and Newman was fourth.

"She runs so smooth," Stewart said. "We talked about it two years ago when we ran the Nationwide race together. I said she was probably one of the easiest people to push around the racetrack, she runs such a smooth line.

It's a huge deal for our sport to have her on the front row of the Daytona 500.

-- Kevin Harvick

"That's what you have to do here."

Patrick has been smooth on and off the track since arriving in Daytona Beach. She's handled the circus around her relationship with Stenhouse the way she did her car around the 2.5-mile circuit in qualifying -- without missing a beat.

As Stewart and others have said, she isn't flustered easily.

And as far as the history-making day, Patrick took it with ease.

"Those are nice things," she said. "More than anything I heard a stat yesterday that getting the pole at Daytona is like winning the fourth-biggest race. For publicity-wise, it's the Daytona 500, the Coke 600, the All-Star Race and then the Daytona 500 pole."

In other words, Harvick, it is front-page news.

"It's good for the team and it's good for GoDaddy, it's good for NASCAR," Patrick said as she put the day into perspective. "It's good for the race itself. When they mention who is on the pole, they're going to mention when the race is. That's good for the whole sport.

"I don't mind answering questions about the other stuff. I get that it's not about racing. It's nice to change the tone of the questions because of what's going on on the track. That is a really good sign, and I like that."

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