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Sunday May 24th, 2015 9:17AM

Danica Patrick wins pole for NASCAR's Daytona 500

By The Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick has made history before -- as a woman and a racer, in Indianapolis and Japan.

The spotlight is nothing new. But never has it been this bright before.

Patrick won the Daytona 500 pole Sunday, becoming the first woman to secure the top spot for any race in NASCAR's premier circuit. It's by far the biggest achievement of her stock-car career.

"I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl," she said. "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."

Her latest stamp in the history books came with a lap at 196.434 mph around Daytona International Speedway. Patrick went out eighth in the qualifying session, then had to wait 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. 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 a part of history with Danica being on the pole," said Gordon, who joked that at least he was the fastest guy. "I think we all know how popular she is, what this will do for our sport. Congratulations to her. Proud to be on there with her."

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.

And she knows her latest achievement will mean more public relations work.

The routine is nothing new for Patrick, who was the first woman to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500. She finished third in 2009, the highest finish in that illustrious race for a woman. And she became the only woman to win an IndyCar race when she did it in Japan in 2008.

Hardly anyone witnessed that victory.

Leading the field to the green flag in NASCAR's showcase event should be must-watch television.

"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."

Even before her fast lap Sunday, Patrick was 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 leading practice sessions 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.

Starting out front in an unpredictable, 500-mile race doesn't guarantee any sort of result, but securing the pole will put her in the limelight for at least the rest of the 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.

"It's obviously a history-making event that will last a long, long time," Guthrie said, praising Patrick's feat. "It's a different era, of course. Different times. I can't imagine what I would do with a spotter or somebody telling me how to drive. It's rather a different sport now. Back then, there was a much greater difference from the front of the field to the back."

Guthrie received a lukewarm reception from fellow drivers back then.

Patrick was much more welcomed, undoubtedly because of her background and popularity.

She's comfortable being in the spotlight, 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 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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