Danica Patrick’s eighth-place finish at the Daytona 500 may not be anything to write home about at first glance. But upon closer examination, Patrick’s performance bodes incredibly well for the rest of her 2013 NASCAR season.
Not only was her finish the best by a woman in NASCAR history, but Patrick also became the first female driver to lead the Daytona 500. She did so twice, for five laps.
But Patrick isn’t around to be the best female driver—she wants to finish first, period.
If Sunday’s performance was any indication, she’ll get her shot this season, because the Daytona 500 wasn’t just a historical race for the GoDaddy.com racer—it was an invaluable learning experience.
Patrick was in the top 10 for the entire race and in the top five for much of the afternoon. Her eighth-place finish is a tad deceiving as well, as Patrick was in third until the final lap, where a scramble saw her drop in the standings.
ESPN’s Ed Hinton said following the race that the Daytona finish was Patrick’s biggest question mark entering the race, as she had little experience “scrambling with the draft-savvy veterans in the inevitable dogfight at the end.”
Indeed, Patrick said in a post-race interview that racing near the front may have cost her at the end of the race.
"I suppose that's the only downside to running in that front group all day, is that I never got any practice passing,” she said. “I never tried, really, anything."
But going forward, look for Patrick to use Sunday’s finish to her advantage as a major learning experience—and to turn a weakness into a strength.
And botched finish aside, there were several other bright spots for Patrick on the weekend. She was the first female pole-sitter in not only Daytona’s 55-year history, but also the Sprint Cup race.
Patrick further proved her racing pedigree, as she became just the 13th driver in history to lead the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500.
With Sunday’s experience under her belt, Patrick should now be able to not just start the race at the top of the pack, but finish in first as well.