Philadelphia, PA – Forget Speedweeks. It's going to be Danica-mania week at Daytona.
From last Thursday's media day at Daytona International Speedway to qualifying for the Daytona 500 on Sunday, the media have swarmed around Danica Patrick like a flock of seagulls from nearby Lake Lloyd fighting over bread crumbs.
The news about Patrick at Daytona, though, has shifted from her romantic relationship with fellow Sprint Cup Series competitor Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to her historic achievement in NASCAR by winning the pole position for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500.
When Sprint Cup resumes track activities at Daytona on Wednesday, there's going to be a lot of hype about Patrick, particularly her chances of winning the Daytona 500 -- NASCAR's most prestigious race of the season. And she'll be enjoying every minute of it.
"I love it when people put me on the radar, I do," Patrick said during her post-qualifying news conference. "When people put you on the radar, that feels good to me."
Patrick became the first woman to win a pole for a race in NASCAR's premier series. Her Daytona 500 pole win didn't come as much of a surprise, as she posted the fastest lap in Saturday's practice for qualifying. Patrick, who is running a full Sprint Cup schedule this season as driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, earned her maiden pole in just her 11th start.
"That's a huge accomplishment," said driver and team co-owner Tony Stewart, who is a three-time Sprint Cup champion. "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."
When Patrick made her Sprint Cup debut at Daytona one year ago, she started 29th and finished 38th. She was caught up in a multi-car wreck on the first lap but managed to finish the race 64 laps off the pace.
The pole win for this year's Daytona 500 became the next item on Patrick's list of accomplishments in her auto racing career. Before her foray into stock car racing in 2010, Patrick had already become enormously popular and widely marketable in the IndyCar Series.
In April 2008, Patrick became the first woman to win an IndyCar race when she took the checkered flag at Motegi, Japan. She also holds the record for highest finishing female in the Indianapolis 500 with a third-place run in 2009. Patrick is the only female to lead laps in the Indy 500 as well. She finished fourth in that event during her 2005 IndyCar rookie season.
Last year, Patrick finished 10th in the Nationwide Series point standings, making her the highest-finishing female in driver points for any one of NASCAR's three national touring series. She also holds the record as the best finisher for a woman in a NASCAR national touring race with a fourth-place run in the 2011 Nationwide event at Las Vegas.
"I'm grateful for all those things," Patrick said. "I feel like, first and foremost, I grew up with good values and good goals. I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl. That was instilled in me from very young, from the beginning.
"Then I feel like thriving in those moments where the pressure's on has also been a help for me. I also feel like I've been lucky in my career to be with good teams and have good people around me. I don't think any of it would have been possible without that.
"For those reasons, I've been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things. I really just hope that I don't stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make. We are excited to do it."
Janet Guthrie held the record for highest starting position by a female in a Sprint Cup race until Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500. Guthrie qualified ninth twice during the 1977 season (Talladega and Bristol). She also had the previous best starting spot by a woman in the Daytona 500 with 18th in 1980.
Guthrie does hold the record for best finish by a female in the Daytona 500 -- 11th in 1980.
Patrick's best finish in 10 Sprint Cup races is 17th, which came in November at Phoenix. Tony Gibson took over crew chief duties for Patrick's No. 10 team at the tail end of last season. When teams tested at Daytona for three days in January, Patrick was continuously among the fastest, particularly in single- car runs.
"It's a tremendous feeling right now," Gibson said. "I'm just happy for my team, and I'm happy for Danica. I told her we know there's going to be low points, but the key to success for us is to enjoy the highs and pat each other on the back and enjoy it. When we hit our lows, we'll pick each other up and get to the next one.
"Right now, we're enjoying this, and it's real big for me. I've accomplished a lot of things, but this ranks up there in the top two or three."
Patrick has been in the spotlight a lot more than normal lately with her relationship with Stenhouse, who is in his rookie season as driver of the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing in Sprint Cup after winning the Nationwide championship the past two years. The 30-year-old Patrick revealed last month that she and Stenhouse, 25, are dating. And what a hot topic the two were on Media Day at Daytona.
But Patrick's Daytona 500 pole win has overshadowed discussions about her love life ... at least for now.
"I definitely think it's good for the team, for (sponsor) Go Daddy and for NASCAR," she said. "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. But I get that it's not about racing. It's nice to change the tone of the questions because of what's going on the track. That is a really good sign and I like that."
Patrick and Stenhouse will not be competing in the same twin-qualifying race (Budweiser Duel) on Thursday at Daytona. She will start up front in the first Duel, while he will line up sixth in the second one.