Danica Patrick's Daytona milestone has reach

Kevin Liles/USA TODAY Sports

Danica Patrick's first full season at NASCAR's highest level started in spectacular fashion as she became the first woman to win a Sprint Cup pole.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick has long been different things to different people. Winning the first pole for a female in Sprint Cup history was no different.

For Janet Guthrie, the trailblazer who often faced strong resistance from drivers and fans as she attempted to break into NASCAR in the 1970s, Patrick's winning of the pole for the Daytona 500 was another advancement in blurring gender lines in sports.

When you talk about Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs, it wasn't just about tennis, and this isn't just about racing.This is about equality and opportunity and preparation, and everything coming together.
Lyn St. James

For Lyn St. James, who through her racing and advocacy efforts has been instrumental in providing opportunities for aspiring female racers, Patrick's pacing of NASCAR's greatest event was comparable to Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match in 1973.

St. James, reached by phone, told espnW.com that she was "excited as hell" after watching Patrick drive home a point about females, sports and society while plying the 2.5-mile superspeedway faster than all others.

"She is making statements for all women in all areas, not just women in racing," St. James said. "To me, this is a milestone for women in sports, which really ripples over. Again, when you talk about Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs, it wasn't just about tennis, and this isn't just about racing. This is about equality and opportunity and preparation and everything coming together."

Guthrie, who previously held the record for top Sprint Cup start by a female (ninth at Talladega and Bristol in 1977), told espnW.com the pole was more about taking gender from the equation.

"I think that's what all of us that have competed at the top level of the sport really wanted, to be regarded as just another driver," Guthrie said. "Her accomplishments in Nationwide and her 10 Cup races last year are fairly comparable to a number of other guys who came over from IndyCar lately.

"Practically nobody runs up front at first, except guys like A.J. Foyt. We'll see how the season develops. It certainly is going to be interesting."

Focus back on racing

Four-time series champion and pole runner-up Jeff Gordon, whose 5-year-old daughter asked to have her picture taken with Patrick in Victory Lane, called Sunday "a great moment in history and a great boost for the sport."

"I think for me, it's not about the color of your skin or your gender," he said. "It's about your abilities. You have to prove that. I think Danica's a talented race car driver."

Both Guthrie and St. James were relieved that Patrick was able to switch focus to on-track performance after a week in which her romance with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. dominated much of the preliminaries for NASCAR's season opener.

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Until Sunday, Janet Guthrie held the record for top Cup qualifying by a female: ninth at Talladega and Bristol in 1977.

"All I can say is, 'Thank God,'" said St. James, who would later send Patrick a congratulatory email. "It has been all about her personal life.

"[People] look me square in the eye and say, 'OK, she does the GoDaddy stuff' -- and some of them don't even know about all the racing stuff -- and they ask, 'Is she really the real deal?' And I say that she is the real deal, and she is a racer. What she did today and what she's done on other occasions, this really cements the deal to a certain extent that she is the real deal."

"This was quite an accomplishment for her," Guthrie added. "Of course, it is very much the team behind her that gave her the car that she could do it with. I used to say back then that it was 75 percent car, 25 percent driver. In order to run up front, you have to have it all, and obviously today she has done it all."

Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood, who held the same title at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005 when Patrick led with 10 laps left as a rookie, said Patrick had validated herself in another form of racing Sunday.

"The best moment in sports is the unpredicted, and that's what gets your attention," he said. "Her first full year [in Sprint Cup] and she captures the pole position for the Daytona 500; that wasn't expected. So when that happens, it generates excitement and possibility. You think, Wow. She might win the race.

"You had never considered that, and that's the beauty of sport. Danica can race. She's got skill. If you didn't know Danica Patrick's name before, you will know it heading into the Daytona 500."

St. James said Patrick has done extremely well maintaining composure with so many hungering for information about her professional and personal lives. Patrick, who announced her divorce after her first full Nationwide season ended in November, seemed relieved to talk about her new relationship earlier this week.

"She's living a life in front of everybody -- whether it's marriages, divorces, everything -- now it's all right out there. It's not [easy]," St. James said. "We live our lives and we have the opportunity to be able to have a private part of our life and not a lot of people know what goes on behind those closed doors. The life she is living now, that's not possible."

Even less so now.

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