By Pete Pistone
(Danica Patrick hopes to have a much better day Sunday at Daytona than she did in Thursday's qualifying race)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For the 54th time NASCAR begins its season with the biggest race of the year.
For the first time since 1992 a woman will be in the field.
Danica Patrick has that honor coming twenty years after Shawna Robinson’s start in “The Great American race.”
But Patrick says her celebrated start in Sunday’s Daytona 500, which has already generated more attention for the race than in recent years, shouldn’t be looked upon as any type of historical significance.
“I’ve always been geared to just try and be the best driver I can be, not the best female driver,” said Patrick, who starts 29th on Sunday afternoon. “That’s been my approach from the day I first started in go-karts and it’s how I feel today as I get ready for Daytona.”
Patrick’s week in Daytona has been eventful with a high-speed crash in her Gatorade Duel qualifying race and a pole position for Saturday’s Nationwide Series opener.
But despite her limited experience at NASCAR’s most famous track, Patrick is relatively comfortable at Daytona.
“Well, with Daytona, it is a big track,” Patrick said. “It’s an easy track to drive. If you have a fast car, you’re going to probably go to the front. I think my inexperience is less of an issue because the car is easy to drive. For me, at a place like Daytona, it reminds me of racing in Indy Car. It reminds me of our mile-and-a-half racing where we would always be in a pack. There was no bump drafting in Indy Car, like there is in NASCAR. That too some getting used to a little bit.”
Patrick’s teammate Tony Stewart may have more experience at Daytona but he has the same number of Daytona 500 victories. The defending series champion has won 17 times at the track, including his Thursday Duel, but has not yet won the most prestigious race.
The three-time champion is well aware of the stat as he enters Sunday’s race.
“I wouldn’t trade three championship to win Daytona,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling to not have that tally in the win column. Realistically, we have two tracks we haven’t won at; and the Daytona 500 we haven’t won.
Everything else we have pretty much accomplished in this sport that we want to accomplish.
“It’s the biggest race of the year; everyone wants to win that race. I won’t say that it is not a complete career if you don’t win it, but there is a lot of priority on winning it. Darrell Waltrip and Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. both had to go a long time before they got it.”
It’s been a relatively long time since Dale Earnhardt Jr. actually won a Sprint Cup race at all. June of 2008 at Michigan International Speedway to be exact was the last time Junior went to victory lane.
He won the 2004 “Great American Race” and would like nothing more than to finally end his more than three-year winless drought with a second win at Daytona.
“You want to win any week you can but obviously Daytona is special,” said Earnhardt. “I’ve won this race before and it meant a lot then and to win it again this year would be a great way to continue the progress we’ve shown as a team over the last year or so.”
Daytona International Speedway
Track Size: 2.5-mile
Race Length: 200 laps/500 miles
Banking/Corners: 31 degrees
Banking/Straights: 3 degrees
Banking/Tri-Oval: 18 degrees
Frontstretch: 1,760 feet
Backstretch: 1,760 feet
2011 pole winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (186.089 mph, 48.364 seconds)
2011 race winner: Trevor Bayne (130.326 mph, 2-20-11)
Qualifying record: Bill Elliott (210.364 mph, 42.783 secs., 2-9-87)
Race record: Buddy Baker (177.602 mph, 2-17-80)
There have been 129 NASCAR Sprint Cup races since the track hosted its first race in 1959: 53 have been 500 miles, 49 were 400 miles and four 250 miles. There were also 23 qualifier races that were point races.
Fireball Roberts won the inaugural pole at Daytona.
Bob Welborn won the first race at Daytona, the 100-mile qualifying race for the Daytona 500.
Lee Petty won the inaugural Daytona 500 on Feb. 22, 1959.
Fireball Roberts won the first 400-mile race at Daytona, the 1963 Firecracker 400.
53 drivers have posted poles at Daytona.
Cale Yarborough leads all drivers with 12 poles at Daytona.
Bill Elliott leads all active drivers with five poles at Daytona.
54 drivers have won at Daytona.
Richard Petty leads all drivers in victories at Daytona with 10.
Jeff Gordon has six victories at Daytona, more than any other active driver.
The Wood Brothers have won 15 races at Daytona, more than any other car owner.
17 full-length races at Daytona have been won from the pole; the last to do it was Kevin Harvick in last year’s Coke Zero 400.
A driver has swept both races at Daytona only four times, most recently by Bobby Allison in 1982.
Who’s Hot at Daytona
Kyle Busch – Daytona is still buzzing from Busch’s scintillating performance in the Budweiser Shootout and at this point his controversial ending to the 2011 season is a distant memory. Busch has comes to the 500 with three straight top five finishes at the track and has the look of a driver determined to make 2012 his season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – The return of pack drafting has been music to Earnhardt’s ears, who is much more comfortable in the old style of restrictor plate racing than in the tandem draft of recent years. There’s a confidence in the Earnhardt camp that has carried over from last season, which could help propel Junior to a second Daytona 500 victory.
Carl Edwards – The pole sitter brings a sense of determination into 2012 after coming up just short of last year’s championship. The Ford camp has had a stellar Speedweeks from a speed perspective and Edwards will have plenty of teammates to work with in the draft. Had four straight top five finishes at Daytona until problems handed him thirty-seventh place finish last July.
Denny Hamlin – Hamlin’s already ahead of where he was at last year’s Speedweeks when his week in Daytona was marred by engine problems and a myriad of other woes. But he has a 22.1 average finish at Daytona for a reason.
Paul Menard – Has been very outspoken about NASCAR’s new restrictor plate rules package and the return of pack drafting. Not surprisingly Menard is on his third car of Speedweeks
Brad Keselowski – Five starts at Daytona have added up to a 26.8 average finish. Has not had the best Speedweeks so far and has a learning curve ahead working with new teammate A.J. Allmendinger.
Groundbreaking for Daytona International Speedway was Nov. 25, 1957. The soil underneath the banked corners was dug from the infield of the track and the hole filled with water. It is now known as Lake Lloyd.
The first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Daytona was a 100-mile qualifying race for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20, 1959.
Richard Petty won his 200th career race on July 4, 1984 at Daytona.
Lights were installed in the spring of 1998. However, the July race was delayed until October that year due to thick smoke from wildfires. The second Daytona race has been held under the lights ever.
Although the first Daytona 500 was held in 1959, it has been the season-opener only since 1982.
518 drivers have competed in at least one Daytona 500; 306 in more than one.
35 drivers have won a Daytona 500.
Youngest Daytona 500 winner: Trevor Bayne (02/20/2011 - 20 years, 0 months, 1 days)
Oldest Daytona 500 winner: Bobby Allison (02/14/1988 - 50 years, 2 months, 11 days)
Eight drivers have won more than one Daytona 500, led by Richard Petty with seven victories.
The eight drivers who have won the Daytona 500 more than once: Richard Petty (seven), Cale Yarborough(four), Bobby Allison (three), Dale Jarrett (three), Jeff Gordon (three), Bill Elliott (two), Sterling Marlin(two) and Michael Waltrip (two).
Dale Earnhardt leads the series in runner-up finishes in the Daytona 500 with five; Kurt Busch leads all active drivers in Daytona 500 second-place finishes with three.
Dale Earnhardt finished in the top 10 in 16 of his 23 Daytona 500s.
Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty each had 16 top 10s in the Daytona 500, more than any other driver.
Dale Earnhardt had 12 top fives in the Daytona 500, more than any other driver.
Only 13 drivers have an average finish of 10th or better in the Daytona 500, six of those competed in the Daytona 500 only once.
Clint Bowyer has a 12.2 average finish in six appearances, the best of the active drivers who have competed in more than one Daytona 500.
Lee Petty, who won the inaugural Daytona 500, and Trevor Bayne, 2011 Daytona 500 champion, are the only two drivers to win the Daytona 500 in their first appearance.
28 of the 35 drivers who have won, participated in at least two Daytona 500s before visiting Victory Lane.
Dale Earnhardt competed 19 times before winning his only Daytona 500 (1998), the longest span of any of the 35 race winners.
Six drivers made 10 or more attempts before their first Daytona 500 victory: Dale Earnhardt (19), Buddy Baker(18), Darrell Waltrip (16), Bobby Allison (14), Michael Waltrip (14) and Sterling Marlin 12).
The most Daytona 500s all-time without a victory was Dave Marcis (33 races).
Mark Martin (27) leads active drivers without a victory.
Six drivers posted their career-first victory with a win in the Daytona 500: Tiny Lund (1963), Mario Andretti(1967), Pete Hamilton (1970), Derrike Cope (1990), Sterling Marlin (1994), Michael Waltrip (2001) andTrevor Bayne (2011).
Three other drivers posted their career-first victory in (point-paying) qualifying races: Johnny Rutherford (1963),Bobby Isaac (1964) and Earl Balmer (1966).
A driver has won back-to-back Daytona 500s three times. Richard Petty (1973-74), Cale Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95)
Kevin Harvick’s 0.020-second margin of victory over Mark Martin in the 2007 Daytona 500 is the 12th-closest overall since the advent of electronic timing in 1993, and the closest in a Daytona 500.
26 of the 53 Daytona 500s have been won from a top-five starting position.
Matt Kenseth won the Daytona 500 from the 39th starting position in 2009, the deepest a race winner has started.
Nine have been won from the pole. The last to do so was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
16 Daytona 500s have been won from the front row.
Danica Patrick will become the third female driver to compete in a Daytona 500 joining Janet Guthrie and Shawna Robinson.