Patrick has more than her share of critics since joining the Sprint Cup Series, but she proved that she is a capable competitor in stock car racing’s future by setting three milestones for the sport.
Earlier in the week Patrick became the first woman to sit on the pole for the Daytona 500. A major accomplishment to be sure, but when she went to the front in lap 90 of the event, she also became the first female ever to lead a green flag lap in a Sprint Cup race.
When the checkered flag dropped giving Johnson the victory, Patrick crossed the line in eighth position, the highest finish for a woman in NASCAR racing history.
For much of the 200 lap race, this year’s contest was a single file freight train as drivers chose to bide their time and draft until the end. Patrick knowing she had a strong car, drove with a similar strategy, and maintained a position in the top ten for most of the afternoon.
Fortunately both major accidents that brought out two of the five cautions happened behind Patrick which allowed her to hold her position.
It was only during the three green flag pit stops that Danica lost serious track positions, but she was always able to maneuver her way back to the front. Her strategy was excellent opting to be content where she was, usually somewhere between third and eighth, as she waited for the final laps to unfold.
With laps counting down from 28 to 23 remaining, the final green flag stop brought all the drivers to the pits. Patrick’s team took on fuel only and did not change tires.
Finally, after 180 laps of single file racing, Daytona got dicey as 25 lead lap cars jockeyed two and three wide for the best position. Patrick, riding third from the front in the high groove, appeared boxed in by other cars that had worked their way to low line on the track.
Then with under ten laps to go, the fifth caution of the afternoon regrouped the pack for a six lap sprint to the finish.
None of the lead cars went to the pits out of fear of losing valuable track position for the final charge to victory.
When the green waved for the last time the only questions remaining were who would make the first move and when and which driver would cross the line first to take home the checkered flag.
With only a lap and a half left in the race, Patrick was still in third position and running high on the track.
Then shortly after the front runners cleared the start/finish line a car spun out in the rear of the pack. Under NASCAR rules, once the white flag is thrown, signaling the final lap, it is a sprint to the finish and caution does not come out.
That sent the leaders wheeling and dealing, and dicing and slicing across the tarmac for the remaining two and half miles before Jimmie Johnson took home the prize. As her fellow drivers zigged and zagged in and out of the traffic, Patrick found herself falling behind to eighth place at the end.
Johnson is no stranger to victory lane. He has more than his share of trophies and Daytona is the biggest prize a driver can get. Now he has two.
But Danica Patrick may have silenced many of her critics, at least for a while. She drove an intelligent race, finished high in the money and, in the process, set three new milestones in the annals of stock car racing history.
Danica Patrick was already a dynamic personality in the world of sport before the race, just saw her stock, and her stock car, became even more marketable at the Daytona 500.
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