Nate Ryan, USA TODAY Sports
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jeff Gordon's daughter, Ella, asked dad to step aside so she could get her photo snapped with the woman in neon green. NASCAR president Mike Helton swung by for a congratulatory handshake at her No. 10 Chevrolet. A tall man sporting a mullet and Dale Earnhardt Jr. garb nearly swooned while fans cheered when the Sprint Cup Series' woman of the hour doffed her white cap toward them in victory lane.
As perhaps the most omnipresent personality in her sport, Danica Patrick was in typically transcendent form Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
But on this historic day at the World Center of Racing, the focus was all on her on-track performance - becoming the first woman in the 65-year history of NASCAR's premier series to capture the pole position.
And in this case, Patrick, 30, will be starting first in stock-car racing's signature event: next Sunday's Daytona 500.
"I've had the experience with mothers, fathers, daughters, sons listening to them say the reason why they're here as a family is because of me," said Patrick, who turned a 196.434-mph lap to best Gordon for the top spot. "It's also nice to hear families talk about that a little girl might say, 'But mommy, daddy, that's a girl out there.' Then they can have the conversation with their kid about you can do anything you want and being different doesn't by any means not allow you to follow your dreams. I love to think that conversation happens in households because of something I'm doing."
Patrick's pole position certainly is a gender breakthrough for the male-dominated motor sports arena. The previous best starting spot by a woman belonged to Janet Guthrie, who qualified ninth twice in 1977 and also held the former mark for best female Daytona 500 starter (18th in 1980).
But it was also a serious jolt of starpower for NASCAR, which has launched a digitally oriented five-year strategy aimed at attracting minorities and youth after suffering through several seasons of declining attendance and sagging TV ratings. Patrick, who has appeared in a record 11 Super Bowl commercials and on red carpets with Hollywood starlets, helped get #Daytona500 trending on Twitter Sunday afternoon as NASCAR's marketing machine revved into high gear.
Last night, Patrick was featured in an extended sitdown on ESPN's SportsCenter, and she is slated for Good Morning America, CBS This Morning and CNN as part of a talk show circuit blitz today.
The first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 says the pole's significance probably topped her 2008 Izod IndyCar victory as the first female in history to win an oval-track race in auto racing's big leagues.
"This is a pretty big stage," she said. "A lot of people win more so than ever with this one because of the big platform that it is. It's a cool day. I've been lucky enough and very blessed in my career to have had a lot of really, really cool days."
Gordon was magnanimous about qualifying second because he was "proud to be a part of history" that was "great for the sport."
"She comes into this with a tremendous amount of exposure, momentum, just popularity that we've never seen before, especially from a female driver," the four-time champion said. "For her to start the season off with a pole, it's huge. I'm surprised you're even talking to me right now. I'm glad I didn't win the pole. We would have messed that story all up."
Of course, Patrick already had been dominating the headlines in the preseason, announcing two days after last season that she was ending a seven-year marriage to Paul Hospenthal and then revealing last month she was dating Ricky Stenhouse Jr., her chief competition for 2013 rookie of the year in Sprint Cup - marking a virtually unprecedented situation in which two athletes in a major-league sport are competing against each other while romantically involved.
"There's a lot going on," Patrick laughed. "It's nice to change the tone of the questions because of what's happening on the track. That is a really good sign."
The Roscoe, Ill., native has seemed almost giddy since arriving in Daytona Beach last week. She has candidly answered virtually every question tossed about her relationship with Stenhouse, whom she said began dating "over the holidays" after forming an instant bond since entering the Nationwide Series as rookies together three years ago.
She joked Thursday when asked about if having a driver as a boyfriend would affect her relationship, "Well, like what (motor home) do you sleep in (at the track)?"
The candor about her personal life is a break from her guarded approach to discussing Hospenthal.
"I feel like I've just reached a point where I've stopped overthinking things and stopped trying to be scared of what might happen on the other side," Patrick told USA TODAY Sports during an interview in her motor home Friday. "You're just living your life, and that's that."
She bounded to her bedroom and retrieved a wooden case that contained a diamond-encrusted belt buckle emblazoned with her Danica Racing logo and NASCAR Nos. 7 and 10 that was a gift from her new beau.
"It's really bling bling," Patrick exclaimed. "It's the real deal. I will be wearing my belt buckle when I hit the South."
Stenhouse says the gift was the result of a bet they made while running on adjacent treadmills at a gym last year. He promised Patrick a belt buckle if she promoted Stenhouse's Twitter account. She did, gaining him 10,000 followers and a shiny reward.
"I think she was just expecting a little belt buckle," Stenhouse, 25, joked to USA TODAY Sports after qualifying 12th Sunday. "I should have put like 20,000 followers on it. I aimed too low. We didn't bet on the pole, because I had a good feeling I was going to lose that bet."
The coupling is a case of opposites attract. Patrick is a globetrotting wine connoisseur who has designs on starting her own clothing line after driving. Stenhouse is a native of Olive Branch, Miss., who prefers country music, tweets about his passion for sweet tea and loves rodeos. .
"I think everything about him is quite adorable," Patrick said. "But he doesn't know a lot about food or wine, for sure. He doesn't know anything about wine, but he knows he doesn't like it.
"Food-wise, the best thing about him is he's willing to try anything. Anything (except) beets. I was trying to explain to him what an artichoke was. He's like, 'Is it a fruit?' No ... so there's a lot of stuff. But one thing about him is he's very smart because he retains everything. He just hasn't had all those experiences."
She still maintains a house in Arizona, but Patrick now lives in Chicago when not spending time with her Stewart-Haas Racing team and Stenhouse in the Charlotte area.
The end of her marriage goes beyond personal for Patrick, who valued Hospenthal's business counsel as a key member of her inner circle.
"I learned a lot about business from him and am grateful for that," she said. "But at the end of the day, the decisions were always up to me. So I don't think things are going to change in the business world for me."
Patrick says she expects the divorce will be finalized March 16 and still talks to Hospenthal on occasion.
"Not a lot but a little bit," she said. " It wasn't a nightmare divorce. It really wasn't awful. Is it good? No, of course not. Is it sad? Of course, it's sad. Is it challenging at times? Of course it's somewhat, but ... you keep each other's feelings in mind ."
Three-time champion Tony Stewart, Patrick's team owner, joked Sunday that she has two boyfriends.
"She has Ricky and she has Tony Gibson," he said, referring to her crew chief. "They are all but holding hands in the shop ."
Gibson has been one of Patrick's most steadfast supporters as she moves into her first full season in Cup. Inside the team's hauler, he put a star with a 'D' in the middle on her locker that's akin to a Hollywood dressing room.
"You've seen a lot of women come into this sport, and I don't think there's been one yet that has been as talented as she is," Gibson told USA TODAY Sports. "She has more desire than half the guys in this garage."
Said Patrick: " This is the largest level of confidence I've felt with the people around me. A lot of people have believed in me, but some people take it to the next level, and I feel like it's on the next level."
Though she is the highest-finishing woman in NASCAR national series history (a fourth in a 2011 Nationwide race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway), Patrick hasn't had many good days yet in NASCAR. She managed only four top 10s in 33 Nationwide starts last year, her first full NASCAR season. Sunday's pole came at a 21/2-mile track where the car is much more important than driver in qualifying. (Patrick said she accounted for 10%; Gibson suggested 50%.)
Her goals will be tempered for the first half of the season with a top-15 ranking as "a great race." But after a 10-race baptism by fire last year , Patrick isn't starting from zero.
"I think she is going to turn some heads," Stewart said. "I believe in her, the team believes in her and the organization believes in her."
During seven seasons in the IndyCar Series, some competitors chirped about a disproportionate amount of attention received by Patrick, who had one victory and didn't finish higher than fifth in points standings.
Kevin Harvick, who won Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited, opened his post-race news conference with "How are we going to get Danica and Ricky on the front page tomorrow?"
Sunday, he was happy about the coverage of Patrick because "it's for all the right reasons."
The success coupled with her competition vs. Stenhouse could make for a compelling mix, says former Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, a consultant who has worked in racing for five decades.
"Drama sells tickets big time, and that is over-the-top drama that could escalate," Wheeler said in an email to USA TODAY Sports. "I mean what other sport could that happen? I simply don't recall any other romantic entangle like that in racing anywhere. Danidrama, if it continues, could have a lot more chapters."
Gordon, who joked that he "was the fastest guy today," said of Patrick: "She has taken on quite a task to take on stockcars that are completely foreign to her. I admire somebody that's willing to take that leap."
Patrick claims she isn't done impressing.
"I've been lucky enough to make history," she said. "I really just hope that I don't stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make."
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