BY CHAD DARE
DAYTONA, Fla. —
Illinois native Danica Patrick will do something today that no woman has ever done in the history of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Patrick will lead a field of 43 cars – 42 men and herself – to the green flag for today’s 55th Annual Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway.
Does she feel any extra pressure with her historical accomplishment?
“I understand that there will be more hope out there, and there will be a lot of people that will be excited, and anxious to see what happens,” said Patrick, of Roscoe, Ill. “But, I put plenty of pressure on myself, and I want to go out there, and I want to win the race. I want to run strong all day. I want to do all of those things for myself. I don’t think anyone can make me feel it anymore.”
Patrick compared the situation to that of the Indianapolis 500 in the 2005, when she, as a rookie, became the first female to lead laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She started fourth that day and finished fourth.
“Everybody was watching me to see what happened in the race and then to have it go down in an exciting fashion and come close to winning it — it blows up even bigger then because so many people are watching,” she said. “I understand that can happen. It’s going to be a big challenge, no doubt. There are a lot of really good drivers that know what they are doing.
“I just need to go out there and I need to just hold my own. I’m thinking about more what I have to do, not what’s going to happen. It doesn’t do me any good to think about what’s going to happen.”
While Patrick won the pole position last Sunday for the Great American Race, she isn’t one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl of stock car racing today.
Kevin Harvick, winner of both the Sprint Unlimited last weekend and one of the two Budweiser Duels on Thursday, is one of the three favorites according to Daytona Beach News-Journal along with Kyle Busch, who won the second duel, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“We like to be lame duck underdog,” said Harvick, referring to his impending switch from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas after the 2013 season. “You know, it’s one of those deals where you want to win. We’ve been fortunate to win the first two races of Speedweeks. We just got to keep a level head on our shoulder, not get too high over what we’ve done, just do the same things that we’ve done. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.
“I think we definitely have the car and the team to be in contention to do that.”
A new team next year isn’t the only change for Harvick. During this past offseason, his wife, DeLana Harvick, had the couple’s first child, a son, Keelan Paul Harvick.
“It’s added a new balance to my life where I can still come to the racetrack and I feel like I’m more relaxed and more focused, which is good for me,” Kevin said. “I don’t get as wound up on things when they happen, whether it’s in the car or outside of the car.
“When you’ve had a bad day, you’re frustrated, you’re right to the point where you can say something stupid, you go back to the motorhome and you see that smiling face – it lets you get mind off of things.”
Busch, who was second in Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race, believes his win in the second Budweiser Duel on Thursday will benefit his run this afternoon.
“This is certainly a huge confidence boost for our team, you know, being able to set the momentum in the right direction at the start of the season,” he said. “I appreciate Dave Rogers (crew chief), all of the guys on this Joe Gibbs Racing team and everybody back at the shop working hard this winter building these cars, getting these things going and bringing some fast Toyota Camrys down to Daytona.”
Harvick and Busch will started third and fourth respectively in today’s race, while Earnhardt Jr., the 2004 Daytona 500 winner, will start back in the 19th spot after finishing 10th in the first Budweiser Duel on Thursday.
Right in front of Earnhardt Jr., in the starting lineup for today’s Daytona 500 will be Casey Mears in the GEICO Ford Fusion, starting 17th.
Mears, who is associated with Danville agent Doug Barnette, has been one of the fastest 20 cars all week in Daytona and he was running as high as second for most of the first Budweiser Duel on Thursday.
“It’s been a real consistent week for our team and we’re going to have a fast car for the Daytona 500,” Mears said. “We started our day off with great news for the folks at GEICO that they’re on-board fulltime for 2013 and 2014, and there’s not much of a better way to start off the season.
“I’m so appreciative of their commitment and the commitment of our team owner, Bob Germain, and it makes me proud to be associated with these guys. I’m really happy for all of the guys on this GEICO team, who have worked so hard in the off-season – it’s great to see them rewarded for their efforts.”
Today’s race is set for 1:15 p.m (EASTERN) start, weather permitting as there is a 50 percent chance of rain in the forecast. Last year’s Daytona 500 was the first one in 54 years to be postponed from Sunday to Monday.
Matt Kenseth, who has moved from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing this season, is the defending champion.
Fox Sports will provide television coverage of today’s race, while WRHK-FM 94.9 will provide the radio coverage.