Danica Patrick has become the most accomplished woman in Daytona 500 history. She was the first woman to win the pole, the first to lead a lap and now she is the highest-finishing woman in the race's prestigious history. Perhaps more importantly, she has established herself as one of the sport's brightest up-and-coming stars.
She has become one of the most polarizing figures in the sport. Derided as more hype than substance by many, but also recognize as a solid talent, Patrick is perhaps the best-known figure in the sport. That status is gradually becoming as much about her performance as her gender or looks.
Patrick started her NASCAR career as a decent performer on the Nationwide Series, taking several top-10 finishes and finishing 10th in total points in 2012.
The hype was hardly worthy of the performance, however, as she switched over to the Sprint Cup Series. She finished 38th in the 2012 Daytona 500 and recorded few significant performances. The naysayers were proving right.
Patrick deserved more credit, though, and she proved as much by taking the pole for this year's Daytona 500. Even then, though, little was expected from her.
In response to the critics, Patrick earned a top-10 finish and became the first women to lead a lap in the race's history. That's the kind of success she needed to prove that she belonged. Now, the sky is the limit.
Think about how impressive Patrick's improvement was from last season. She crashed on just the second lap of the Daytona 500 last season, culminating in a mediocre finish. That began a string of poor finishes and plenty of crashes.
Now, Patrick is winning poles and competing on the biggest of stages. She surged all the way to third near the end of the race before finally falling to eighth in the race's final stages. With single-digit laps to go, Patrick was still very much in the running.
She finally proved that she can hang with NASCAR's best, and she did it in one of the sport's biggest races. Expect Patrick to continue to improve as she finally becomes more famous for her racing skills than her gender.