It's time for the haters to stop hating and the doubters to stop doubting—Danica Patrick delivered at Daytona on Sunday.
The Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year candidate scored the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500, the biggest event of the NASCAR season, and came out of it with both a clean car and a top-10 finish.
Neither of those outcomes seemed predictable a month ago, when Patrick planned to enter her first full-time season of Cup competition with Stewart-Haas Racing after struggling in 10 Cup starts and a full Nationwide campaign last year. But despite all of the pressure, doubt, and media saturation, NASCAR's newest star ran a race that should have some thinking twice about not having faith in her.
Patrick entered Daytona the subject of intense scrutiny for a number of reasons. Had she been rushed to the Cup level too early after a middling Nationwide season with JR Motorsports last year? Would she click with crew chief Tony Gibson in a way she hadn't with Tony Eury Jr. at JRM? Would her off-track relationship with fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. affect her performance on track?
The only way to address those concerns was to come out strong in qualifying. One flying lap of 196.434 miles per hour later, and that was mission accomplished.
But after winning the pole, analysts pointed out that the No. 10 car would need to survive the Budweiser Duels on Thursday to retain the top starting position. While Patrick came home 17th in her Duel, a finish that could've prevented her from making the race otherwise, it was because she hung toward the back of the pack to avoid any potential accidents that would force her to switch to a backup car.
Soon after the drop of Sunday's green flag, second-place starter Jeff Gordon jumped ahead of Patrick, taking the lead and holding it for 31 laps. That could've been the start of a free-fall through the field, but Patrick maintained her position towards the front, eventually climbing back to the point on lap 90 and becoming the first woman to lead a lap in Daytona 500 history.
Even at the end of the race, the No. 10 car maintained a position at the front of the pack. Entering the final lap of the race, Patrick held third place before a faster line and charge from Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin and others put five cars past her.
That being said, there's still plenty for Patrick to improve upon. The No. 10 crew enabled her to spend the least time on pit road of any driver, with an average of only 30.781 seconds per stop. But Patrick frequently struggled to exit the first pit box, losing positions on more than one occasion after slow starts. Giving up five positions on the final lap is also a disappointment, even if that's commonplace at superspeedways.
Still, Sunday's performance proved that many may have underestimated Patrick's talent. Sure, her so-so Nationwide performance last year didn't suggest anything like this, but remember this: Jimmie Johnson only has one win in 92 starts at that level, and look at where he spent Sunday night—in Victory Lane. For all we know, Patrick could be the same kind of driver.
That is, if she's as good everywhere else as she is in Daytona.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.