Danica Patrick is proving she belongs in NASCAR.
Take a moment to let that sink in.
Her front-row start marks the first time in Sprint Cup Series history that a woman will lead the field to the green flag in the Great American Race. It is, without a doubt, the biggest accomplishment in her NASCAR career thus far. It will also be the leading story as Daytona Speedweeks progresses and the big show next weekend draws closer.
There is no other driver in NASCAR who draws more attention and is the subject of more conversation than Patrick. People know her for all the Super Bowl commercials she has done. Then there is Danica the swimsuit model and cover girl. Most recently, the topic of conversation has shifted to her relationship with fellow competitor Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
It is through all of these personal images that Patrick has found herself at the center of both praise and criticism from NASCAR fans.
Notice, however, that Danica the race car driver is not one of those images.
That, my friends, is about to change.
You can say what you want about Patrick. You can claim she has gotten as far as she has in her career for her looks more so than her talent. This is actually correct to an extent. After all, we are talking about someone who has won only one race since breaking into the national forefront during the 2005 Indianapolis 500.
She has not competed for wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series either since she made the shift to stock cars. For the most part, she has been just another car out on the track logging laps.
Starting at the end of last season, however, she began to turn the corner. She was very impressive in her few Sprint Cup starts last season. She could have fought for a top-10 finish at Bristol last fall if she had not wrecked near the race's end. She began to run with some of the established veterans of the sport. She slowly became less of a media circus act and more of a noteworthy competitor.
That change has culminated with this Daytona 500 pole. In driving her way to the top spot, she has struck a blow against the apparent lack of diversity in NASCAR. Just look at who will be starting next to her on Sunday. It's Jeff Gordon, one of the sport's greatest legends.
It may only be qualifying, but Patrick was able to put herself in the same category as the third-winningest driver in the history of the sport. That says something and it is a testament to her development as a stock car driver.
I am not going to so far as to say Patrick is one of the favorites in next Sunday's edition of the 500. It's one thing to start a restrictor plate race up front, but finishing up front is an entirely different animal. Patrick learned that in last year's Nationwide race at Daytona.
How will Danica fare in the Daytona 500?
I will openly declare, however, that I expect Patrick to make noise in the Great American Race. I think she will lead laps and run up front for a good portion of the race. I will even go out on a limb and say she is capable of a top-10 finish when all is said and done.
Then again, crazier things have happened. Just look at Trevor Bayne's magical run in 2011. In any case, it's time to take a closer look at Danica and respect her driving abilities. Like it or not, she is one of the new faces of the sport. She has proven she can race at super speedways and she dramatically improved at other track types last season.
If you can look past all the other elements of her fame, you will see that there is a talented driver at the center of it.
If her pole run today is any indication, she is ready to become a respected competitor as well.