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NASCAR: Danica on Daytona pole

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick has won the Daytona 500 pole, becoming the first woman to secure the top spot for any race in NASCAR’s top circuit.

It was the biggest achievement of her stock-car career.

“We have a lot more history to make andw we’re eager to do it,” Patrick said.

Patrick went out eighth in the qualifying session Sunday and covered the 21/2-mile superspeedway in 45.817 seconds, averaging 196.434 mph.

She waited about two hours as 37 fellow drivers tried to take her spot. Only four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon even came close to knocking her off.

“That’s a huge accomplishment,” team owner and fellow driver Tony Stewart said. “It’s not like it’s been 15 or 20 years she’s been trying to do this. It’s her second trip to Daytona here in a Cup car. She’s made history in the sport. That’s stuff that we’re proud of being a part of with her. It’s something she should have a huge amount of pride in.

“It’s never been done. There’s only one person that can be the first to do anything. Doesn’t matter how many do it after you do, accomplish that same goal. The first one that does always has that little bit more significance to it because you were the first.”

Gordon was the only other driver who topped 196 mph in qualifying. He locked up the other guaranteed spot in next week’s season-opening Daytona 500.

“It’s great to be part of history,” Gordon said. “I can say I was the fastest guy today.”

The rest of the field will be set in duel qualifying races Thursday.

However the lineup unfolds, all drivers will line up behind Patrick’s No. 10 Chevrolet SS for “The Great American Race.”

Patrick joked about wanting to get Monday and Tuesday off, but then quickly realized her accomplishment likely will result in more attention and more demands.

“I feel a scheme coming on,” she said. “I feel a plane coming. I feel nervous.”

Patrick has been the talk of Speedweeks. Not only did she open up about her budding romance with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but she was considered the front-runner for the pole after turning the fastest laps in practice Saturday.

And she didn’t disappoint.

She kept her car at or near the bottom of the famed track and gained ground on the straightaways, showing lots of power from a Hendrick Motorsports engine.

“It’s easy to come down here in your first or second year as a driver and clip the apron trying to run too tight a line or do something and scrub speed off,” Stewart said. “That’s something she did an awesome job. Watching her lap, she runs so smooth. … She did her job behind the wheel, for sure.”

The result surely felt good for Patrick, especially considering the former IndyCar driver has mostly struggled in three NASCAR seasons. Her best finish in 10 Cup races is 17th, and she has one top-five in 58 starts in the second-tier Nationwide Series.

She raced part-time in 2010 and 2011 while still driving a full IndyCar slate. She switched solely to stock cars last season and finished 10th in the Nationwide standings.

She made the jump to Sprint Cup this season and will battle Stenhouse for Rookie of the Year honors.

But taking the pole will make her the talk of the town for another week. She also won the pole at Daytona for last year’s Nationwide race.

This is considerably bigger.

The previous highest female qualifier in a Cup race was Janet Guthrie. She started ninth at Bristol and Talladega in 1977.

Patrick shattered that mark Sunday, putting her squarely in the spotlight for the next week. It’s a position she’s comfortable in, evidenced by her racing career, her television commercials and her sudden openness about her personal life.

“I think when pressure’s on and when the spotlight’s on, I feel like it ultimately ends up becoming some of my better moments and my better races and better results,” Patrick said. “I don’t know why that it. I’m grateful for it because the opposite of that would be I probably wouldn’t be here today, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in. I guess thanks mom and dad. Thanks for the genetics. Thank you for all that.

“I just understand that if you put the hard work in before you go out there that you can have a little peace and a little peace of mind knowing that you’ve done everything you can and just let it happen.”

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