Patrick on the 500 pole and the Sprint…um…limited
Let the frenzy begin. Danica Patrick turned heads Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway, scoring the pole for next Sunday’s Daytona 500. In doing so, Patrick becomes the first woman in history to win a Sprint Cup Series pole. Her speed of 196.434 mph is the quickest Daytona 500 qualifying speed since Terry Labonte in 1990. Patrick’s pole is significant not just for the historical first, but also because of Patrick’s rockstar status, but also the fact that this is the leadoff to her first full Sprint Cup season, and that NASCAR is really optimistic about the debut of the new Gen-6 car.
The mix of history and superstardom make the spotlight on NASCAR very bright to start the season. The mainstream media mauled this story Sunday and Monday and will continue to do so through Sunday’s race. But let’s remember something: the pole at Daytona is about as significant as finishing 2nd in the Sprint Unlimited or winning a Duel race – it is prestigious, but it means little on raceday and is a bad barometer of driver ability. Yes, Patrick is beginning to stabilize as a driver. She is learning stock cars, but this pole does very little to show that. What the mainstream media does not account for is the fact that plate race qualifying involves vary little driver variability and most of the speed is in the racecar. Patrick’s slight weight in comparison to other drivers and how the wind may have helped her or hurt other drivers are also factors in her having the fastest speed. Patrick deserves props for doing everything right as a driver during her qualifying laps and for the feedback she gave her team in January testing and in the practice sessions before qualifying to gain her the pole winning speed she needed. Now is the time for her to pay it forward with a good finish.
One other significant aspect of Patrick’s top qualifying spot is the addition of substance to her resume. So much is made about her commercial success, personality, popularity, and – oh yes – romance with fellow Rookie of the Year contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr. While her center presence in the spotlight will only drudge the personal life questions even more in the open, her qualifying accomplishment will at least act slightly to balance all of the fluff. Her result in the Daytona 500 is what really matters, not qualifying. If she can eek out a solid finish, not tear up any racecars, and learn some more about passing in the draft, she will have even more to write home about than the pole position in the Great American Race.
Some quick notes about qualifying: Patrick and Jeff Gordon (2nd) are the only two drivers whose spots are set for Sunday’s race (unless the wreck or change engines). The rest of Sunday’s time trials set the field for Thursday’s Budweiser Duel races and the top 15 finishers in each of those determines the next 30 starting spots in the fields. After that, the next four fastest drivers in time trials get a spot in the Daytona 500, if they do not finish high enough in the Duels. The next four fastest speeds in qualifying outside of Patrick and Gordon are Trevor Bayne, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, and Kasey Kahne. The next six spots in the Daytona 500 are determined by the six highest drivers in 2012 owner’s points who did not finish high enough in the Duels or were not one of the four fastest of the drivers from time trials that had not already qualified otherwise. The top six in owner’s points from last season – Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Kahne, Greg Biffle, and Denny Hamlin - are guaranteed at least a provisional spot in the Daytona 500 and for the four races after. The final spot in the field for the Daytona 500 goes to the msot recent past champion, who has not already qualified for the Daytona 500 in the other four ways. Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship (he also won in 2005 and 2002) makes him the most recent past champion not in the top six in 2012 points, so he is also guaranteed a spot in 2013’s first five races. Since he is already timed in to the Daytona 500 based on his Sunday speed and since Johnson (championships 2006-2010) is the next-most recent champion, but is already locked into the Daytona 500 based on 2012 owner’s points, the most recent past champion who has not already timed in or locked in to the field is Kurt Busch (2004). Matt Kenseth (2003), Bobby Labonte (2000), and Terry Labonte (1996) are the other three past champions earlier than Busch that, so far, are not locked into the field. Got that? Thought so. Watch the TV broadcasts on SPEED closely on Thursday. In the end, only two drivers will miss the race. Joe Nemechek, Mike Bliss, and Brian Keselowski were the three slowest drivers in time trials and were very low in 2012 owner’s points. At least one of them will make the Daytona 500. For another or both of those three to make the Daytona 500, they will pray that big wrecks in the Duel or lucky passes in the draft allow them to finish in the top 15 and shift the nerves to another driver and team. Brian Keselowski and brother Brad drafted each other to good finishes in a 2011 Duel race and Brian got to race in his only Daytona 500 – his only Cup race to date.
Reviews are in for Saturday's Sprint Unlimited (formerly the Bud Shootout) and they are tepid at best. Many people are commenting that the new Gen-6 car's sensitivity in the draft and drivers’ lack of knowledge on how to draft with them led to the single-file racing that pervaded much of the race. The new cars are twitchy in the draft and drivers are not exactly sure yet how hard they can push each other in the corners without wrecking. But Saturday night’s race, uneventful as it was until close to the end, gets a grade of incomplete. The field was small (19 compared to 43 in a normal race) and six drivers were out of the race by lap 15 after a big wreck. This made for a smaller pack and created different conditions in which the car could behave than will be in place on Sunday. So instead of drivers pushing the limit all 75 laps of the Sprint Unlimited, drivers (ahem) limited their willingness to tear up the racecars their teams preciously need in this tight time of building new cars and preparing for the coming long trips to the early races on the west coast. Some fans are already complaining that they want the tandem racing to return. Yes, the same type of restrictor plate racing that 80% of the fan base seemingly bemoaned all through 2011 and some of 2012. Be patient. Teams and drivers will figure out how to make these cars draft together and you can bet that the aggression level will torque up quite a bit as the actual Daytona 500 gets underway. By the way, boring as most of the race was, how about Kevin Harvick winning early on in his final season with RCR? And how could you deny the skill he took in blocking both Stewart and Biffle at the last second on the last lap?