DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — All Danica Patrick needed to do was keep her car intact.
She didn’t exactly follow her team owner’s advice — start and then park after two laps, he joked — but she certainly saved an all-out push for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Patrick started on the pole for the first 150-mile Budweiser Duel before she coasted and finished 17th out of 23 cars. She’ll keep the top spot for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
She led the field to green, then quietly faded to the back, never giving herself a chance to race for the win.
Patrick said there was “a sense of relief” in keeping the pole. “But at the same point in time, I’m a race car driver, and it’s not fun to have to protect and be careful and be cautious and drop back at times,” she said.
Patrick was nowhere near the four-lap sprint to the finish that saw Kevin Harvick hold off Greg Biffle for the win.
Patrick became the first woman in history to win a pole in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series. Team owner Gene Haas even suggested — perhaps, jokingly — that Patrick call it a day after a couple of laps.
Not a chance.
“We really just wanted to run probably 10 or 15 laps and be in the pack, be in front,” crew chief Tony Gibson said. “Once we got into a stalemate, we fell back, the inside line wasn’t moving and it was just time to get out.”
No driver has won the Daytona 500 from the pole since Dale Jarrett in 2000.
She can’t rest easy yet, not with Cup practices today and Saturday, where any wreck could send her to the back of the field. But she passed the first major of Speedweeks since she thrust herself and NASCAR into the national spotlight with a history-making run at the pole for “The Great American Race.”
Patrick knows all about how miserable it can be driving in the back of the field, with no serious chance for the checkered flag. Her average start was 36th and her average finish was 28th in her 10 Cup races last season. She got caught in a crash on just the second lap of her Daytona 500 debut last season and finished 38th.
Patrick has struggled in three NASCAR seasons and has never finished better than 17th. She made the fulltime jump to the top series this season.
Patrick is the fresh face of NASCAR heading into the series’ season-opener.
She signed autographs without slowing a step as she whisked through the fan zone on her way to the hauler. Patrick fans camped out on seats atop the garage and yelled, “Danica, we love you!” as she went to the hauler.
She’s handled the pressure of the pole with the same ease she handles the car.
If she keeps the top spot until Sunday, all she’ll need to do is pick where she’ll race, not when to drop back.
“Do I have to start on the inside on Sunday? I’m not really sure,” she said. “Where does the pole start? The outside looked pretty nice.”
Follow Dan Gelston online: https://twitter.com/APGelston and http://racing.ap.org
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