DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.: If two practices are any indication, Danica Patrick is a solid candidate to win the pole for the Daytona 500.
Patrick turned the fastest lap Saturday in two practice sessions focused solely on qualifying for the Daytona 500. She went 196.220 mph around Daytona International Speedway in the second practice session and said she’s eyeing the top starting spot in “The Great American Race.”
“Everything that we do is to make sure that we do whatever we can to be on the pole,” Patrick said. “That is what we all are shooting for.”
The front row for next Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 will be set in today’s time trials. The rest of the field is set next Thursday after two qualifying races.
Patrick said it would be an accomplishment for her Stewart-Haas Racing team to lock into the field today.
“I think it would be really nice for all of us to know we were in the race,” she said. “It’s nice to know as a team, but it’s also nice to know for your [sponsors] like GoDaddy and all the other people that are involved in the car. That is who really pays for you to be out there on the track.”
Patrick was nearly a second faster than the other drivers Saturday.
Second fastest in the afternoon session was three-time champion Tony Stewart, her teammate and car co-owner, who turned a lap of 195.363 mph in his Chevrolet. Kyle Busch was third in a Toyota, and he was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray as Chevrolet took four of the top five spots.
Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, was the fastest Ford in sixth.
Joey Logano paced the morning practice with a fast lap at 195.410 mph in his Penske Racing Ford. He was followed by Austin Dillon for Richard Childress Racing and then Patrick, who went 195.359 in the first session.
She came to Daytona with a different car than the one her SHR team tested with in January. That car was fast and had the team encouraged, but crew chief Tony Gibson settled on a different Chevy based on wind tunnel data.
“I think being fastest on the chart, just being fast in general shows everyone else how dead serious Tony Gibson is with his guys and how he wants poles, he wants to give me the fastest car possible,” Patrick said. “He is doing absolutely everything he can and is putting so much hard work into it. I think that just shows his confidence in everyone including myself about what we can do.”
Talking about her car was a welcome change for Patrick, who has spent the last few days answering questions about her relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The two are dating and competing against each other for Sprint Cup Series rookie of the year.
“I have always felt in my career that when things go well on the track the media responds to it,” she said.
Meanwhile, Juan Pablo Montoya showed some speed in the first session, where he turned the eighth-fastest lap, but his engine blew during the second practice. Chip Ganassi Racing switched to Hendrick Motorsports engines this season, and Montoya was encouraged by their power and teammate McMurray’s speed in the second session.
“We are pretty happy,” he said. “We will change the motor and give it a good go in qualifying.”
Chevrolet might have pulled out of NASCAR had the sanctioning body not agreed to redesign race cars and make them more relevant to consumers.
NASCAR President Mike Helton and Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said Saturday that they had talks with the American automaker that made it clear things needed to change to keep Chevrolet happy.
But Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America, said the auto giant never threatened to walk.
“We’re not going to walk in and threaten we’re going to leave anything,” Ruess said. “We’re going to have great conversations about what we’re going to do, so that’s the way we’ll approach it.”
Helton and Hendrick, though, believe it could have happened had NASCAR not developed the new “Generation 6” car that resembles those on showroom floors.
Speaking at the unveiling of the 2014 Chevrolet SS at Daytona International Speedway, Helton said Chevrolet “backed us in a corner and said, ‘Here’s what you guys need to think about doing’ and causing us maybe to react a little bit ahead of our own schedules. But it worked, and it worked well.”
Hendrick echoed those sentiments.
“I think Mark Reuss said that if we can’t be relevant, we don’t race,” Hendrick recalled. “So we had a lot riding on that. I think that’s when everybody started talking, and Ford and Toyota. But Mark pushed the button with NASCAR, and I’m glad he did. It’s sure paid off.”
Drivers, owners, NASCAR, fans and manufacturers have raved about the retooled cars, which have better styling and more unusual front ends that offer brand identity. It remains to be seen how they will alter racing.
The real payoff could come down the road, with the new race cars possibly improving showroom sales and creating more interest in racing.
And if not for the changes, Chevy may have pull out.