(Reuters) - Danica Patrick will start from the Daytona 500 pole position after posting the fastest qualifying speed for the Great American Race on Sunday and becoming the first woman to take the pole for a NASCAR Sprint Cup event.
Patrick, who ran a partial Sprint Cup program last year, signaled she was ready to race full-time against the big boys of American stock car racing by clocking 196.434 mph around Daytona International Speedway.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon joined Patrick on the front row for next Sunday’s race, joking afterwards that he was at least the fastest man.
Patrick’s top speed was the fastest qualifying effort at Daytona since 1990.
“I’m just the driver, this is a team pole,” she told reporters after her qualifying effort. “I was a little bit nervous.
“It would definitely be a high point memory. I think Daytona has such a legendary following.”
The remainder of the 500 field will be set in a pair of qualifying races scheduled for Thursday.
The qualifying triumph marked another in a growing list of firsts for Patrick, who became the only woman to win an IndyCar race in 2008 before jumping to NASCAR, the United States’ most popular motor sports series.
Janet Guthrie had the previous best qualifying performance by a woman when she qualified ninth for Cup races at Talladega and Bristol speedways in 1977.
After posting the fastest times in Saturday’s practice, all eyes were on Patrick as her number 10 Chevrolet took to the sun-kissed super speedway.
The eighth driver of 45 attempting qualify for next Sunday’s race, Patrick held her nerve and could not hide her delight at holding onto top spot.
While winning the Daytona pole is a career highlight for Patrick, starting from first on the grid will not be a new experience.
She started from the pole position for three races during her IndyCar career and last season started first in a Nationwide Series race, NASCAR’s second tier series.
“Any experience is good experience,” said Patrick.
Already one of America’s best known athletes, Patrick is sure to be in the spotlight for during the buildup to next Sunday’s main event.
The popular driver, who is as well known for her GoDaddy sponsorship, racy commercials and photo shoots, has made tabloid headlines for her romance with fellow NASCAR rookie Ricky Stenhouse.
“He’s never been another number out there, he has been someone who has helped me and someone who has given me a lot of advice,” said Patrick, who could well battle Stenhouse for rookie of the year honors. “(He is) somebody I have a lot of respect for, someone I have always given a lot of room and been very fair and he does the same for me.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Gene Cherry