Danica Patrick makes history, makes progress

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Daytona Beach police struggled to control the scene as fans swarmed Danica Patrick in her No. 10 Chevrolet -- and that was before the race.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR officials and local police had been ordering the gawkers from pit road for several minutes by the time actor James Franco screeched "drivers and Danica start your engines." The motor in her No. 10 Chevrolet had been rumbling for another few minutes as scores of fans lingered at her netted window, capturing photographs on everything from smartphones to tablets.

"I thought that was a hefty amount of people," she recalled.

It was, as characterized by an exasperated Daytona Beach police officer working through the crowd, "total madness." And these weren't inebriated rapscallions with sunburned chests ignoring authority through a drunken haze. These were little girls in sundresses, grannies with sweaters wrapped around their waists and well-groomed men in collared shirts staging acts of civil disobedience until photographed to their satisfaction in front of Patrick's race car.

Total madness in a blissful sort of way.

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Pole-sitter Danica Patrick made a little more history, becoming the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500 when she charged to the front on Lap 90. She led five laps altogether.

Fireworks burst nearby. Patrick's father, T.J., struggled to locate his wife, Bev, and daughter, Brooke, as they slogged through the mass. It felt disorderly. It felt sublime.

It felt very much the same with five of the 200 laps remaining, as Patrick lined up sixth for what was the final restart after a caution. Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson led, followed by defending series champion Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Patrick, who was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

All were past restrictor-plate winners. Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. had captured the Daytona 500 before. She was in the fray now, with NASCAR's biggest prize at stake.

Her line of conversation with spotter Brandon Benesch denoted not only a confidence, but the mindset of a driver determined to stake out claims in her first full Sprint Cup season, especially so when informed that Earnhardt Jr. was annoyed with her attempts to block him.

"It's not blocking, you a------," she said, as if talking to her former Nationwide Series teammate. "It's protecting your lane."

"He's the king," the spotter answered.

"He's never been a fan, so fine with me," Patrick responded.

She settled in for five laps, and she went for it. Patrick advanced to fifth one lap after the restart on Lap 195, then to third with four laps remaining.

Johnson, Biffle, Patrick and Earnhardt Jr. were strung out single file. She remained there until the final lap, when Earnhardt Jr. dipped below to pass her with an advancing low line, dropping her to eighth.

The finish was the best for a female in the 55-year-old race. The previous best was Janet Guthrie's 11th in 1980.

It was history, and it was progress.

She left more historical footprints Sunday. It just took a little longer than expected.

These are things that just happen along the way. I'm on the quest to be the best driver, run up front, get to Victory Lane. These things happen, and I'm proud, but they're not the ultimate goal.
Danica Patrick

Patrick became the first female to win a Sprint Cup pole last week but was overtaken on the first lap Sunday. But by pitting for fuel only under caution early in the race, she took the lead on a restart and led Laps 90-91, becoming the first woman to pace green flag laps in NASCAR's top series. She eventually led twice for five laps. Guthrie had led five laps under caution at Ontario (Calif.) Speedway in 1977.

In 2005 as an IndyCar rookie, Patrick became the first female to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500, also setting gender records for starting and finishing fourth. She finished third there in 2009.

As usual, she preferred not to filter accomplishments in gender terms, saying that becoming the 13th driver to have led laps in both the Daytona and Indianapolis 500s is "a much cooler stat for me." According to ESPN research, she is just the sixth driver to have led at least five laps in both events.

"Honestly, when I say that I wanted to lead at some point, it was just because I was disappointed I didn't do it off the bat like I thought I should have," said Patrick, who raced in the top 3 much of the day and was never scored worse than 11th position. "So it didn't really have to do with being a girl and leading.

"I'm honored. But, again, these are things that just happen along the way. I'm on the quest to be the best driver, run up front, get to Victory Lane. These things happen, and I'm proud, but they're not the ultimate goal."

There was no ill will between Patrick and Earnhardt Jr., said her crew chief, Tony Gibson, just intensity at an intense moment. After the race, Patrick complimented Earnhardt Jr.'s strategy, and he proclaimed "she's a racer. She knows what's coming. She's smart about her decisions." He said Patrick would "make a lot of history all year long."

Gibson saw from the outset of his assignment as crew chief the historical relevance of their endeavor. He saw Sunday as the first step in creating something even more profound.

"Every week we're going to get better and better and better," he said. "There's going to be some bumps in the road, but we're willing to suck those up and go on and get us some high notes. I am so proud of her.

"She kept her head for a week and a half and, you know? … To come here and run all day long, to be the first woman to sit on the pole for the Daytona 500, the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500 is pretty damned impressive, and the highest finish … so what else you gonna get from that?"

History, for sure, out of madness. Total madness.

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