Danica Patrick has made history.
Now the challenges for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ first female Coors Light Pole winner – and 44 other drivers – become incrementally greater as the clock ticks ever closer to Sunday’s running of the 55th Daytona 500 (1 p.m. ET on FOX, FOX Deportes, Motor Racing Network Radio, Sirius XM Satellite Radio).
Only Patrick and No. 2 qualifier Jeff Gordon know where they’ll start “The Great American Race.” The remainder of the 43-car starting lineup will be determined in Thursday’s Duel at Daytona, a pair of 150-mile races (see page 2 for how the Daytona 500 field is set).
Will Patrick go on to become the first pole starter since Dale Jarrett in 2000 to win the Daytona 500? Time will tell. Meanwhile, there are other storylines as Daytona Speedweeks continues:
• The Daytona 500 marks the first points race for NASCAR’s new Gen-6 race car.
• Reigning Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth looks to become the race’s first back-to-back champion of the 21st Century.
• Penske Racing returns to Ford a season after Brad Keselowski won the 2012 championship in a Dodge.
• Two-time-reigning NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. opens his bid for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title.
Patrick’s pole isn’t her first at Daytona. She was the fastest qualifier for last year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300.
Sunday’s lap of 196.434 mph (45.817 seconds) was third-fastest of the restrictor plate era. Janet Guthrie owned the previous best Daytona 500 start of 18th in 1980. Guthrie held the record for a NASCAR Sprint Cup female driver with a pair of ninth-place performances in 1977.
Front row starts, however, are no guarantee of a trip to Victory Lane. Numbers one or two qualifiers have won “The Great American Race” just 16 times in the past 54-year history of the Daytona 500.
The Gen-6 car made its competitive debut in last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited and received positive reviews from drivers. The Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry models appear nearly identical to their production versions, putting the “stock” back in stock car racing.
Thursday’s Duel will provide further clues as to how the Gen-6 will race, but Sprint Unlimited winner Kevin Harvick predicted the Daytona 500 will be an “old school” affair.
“It’s going to be a pack, absolutely,” Harvick said. “If you turn on a [year] 2000 race, one of those races, it’s going to be very similar.”
Kenseth goes to the post for a new owner – Joe Gibbs Racing – after winning the Daytona 500 for Roush Fenway Racing in 2012 and 2009. The No. 20 Toyota appeared the car to beat in last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited until Kenseth lost track position in the non-points race’s third segment.
Kenseth enjoyed a phenomenal season on plate tracks a year ago, winning at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway with a season average finish of 2.5.
Sterling Marlin (1994-95) is the most recent driver to win the Daytona 500 in back-to-back seasons.
Penske Racing last fielded a Ford – a Taurus – in the 2002 Daytona 500 with drivers Ryan Newman and NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace. Newman finished seventh; Wallace 21st.
Keselowski was 23rd in Sunday’s qualifying with Penske newcomer Joey Logano ninth. They’ll both be in Duel No. 1, along with NASCAR Sprint Cup champions Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch.
Logano, who finished third in the Sprint Unlimited, begins his fifth fulltime NASCAR Sprint Cup season with a new team. He won twice with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Stenhouse has big shoes to fill as he takes over controls of Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 17 Ford vacated at the conclusion of 2012 by 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kenseth. Fact of the matter is, the only thing that’s the same is the car number, which should alleviate much of the pressure as he chases rookie of the year honors.
“I think it is a cool opportunity for me to come into Matt’s [Kenseth] number with a totally different team, and because of the story, people don’t realize it is a different crew chief, team and over the wall guys,” Stenhouse said. “I think we have accomplished a lot in NASCAR in the Nationwide series and to think that is going to translate right over to the Sprint Cup Series the first year is a little difficult. I think we are capable of doing that, though, and that is the plan.”