Can Danica win the Daytona 500?
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick believes she can win NASCAR's Super Bowl.
"Do I think I can win the Daytona 500? Yeah," Patrick said.
Is she right? The simple answer is yes. After all, restrictor-plate races are often decided by luck and circumstance. Trevor Bayne proved that last year when he stunned NASCAR by winning the race in only his second Cup start just one day after turning 20.
But given Patrick's limited exposure to stock-car racing, the odds are certainly stacked against her.
Patrick's experience on the big track at Daytona is extremely limited. She has driven one ARCA race and three Nationwide races at Daytona and has never raced at Talladega. In Patrick's last race at Daytona last July, she was in position to win the Nationwide Series race when the two-car tandem was in full force. She drove an extremely smart race aided by her future Cup team owner Tony Stewart, who helped push her to the front most of the night. She led 13 laps before finally falling back and crashing as the field marched toward the finish line.
NASCAR has since changed the rules in an effort to minimize two-car drafts and encourage the more traditional pack racing style of racing. While the fans prefer that type of racing, it is also fraught with danger as Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout showed. While Daytona 500 pole winner Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart believe the racing will be less aggressive in the Daytona 500, they both realize that, at times, there will be moments of high risk and high drama while running in a pack.
Where Patrick finds herself in those moments early in the race will determine if she is around to actually have a fair shot at a high finish -- or even a victory -- when it comes down to the end of NASCAR's premier event.
"I don't have a lot of experience pack racing so you're going to have to make sure you stay in touch with the pack," Patrick said. "If you lose the pack you are in trouble."
Patrick's mentor is Stewart, who has won plenty of restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega but has never won the Daytona 500. He believes Danica has a shot at Daytona.
"Did anybody think Trevor Bayne could win the race last year on this day? Anything can happen here. It is anybody's ballgame," he said. "She did a really good job in July last year in the Nationwide race when I ran with her. I was really impressed at how smooth she was and how good a job she did in the two-car deal. Talent, there is no doubt in my mind she has the talent to do it."
During restrictor-plate races Stewart and many other Cup veterans often drop to the rear of the field and hang out in the back in the early stages of restrictor-plate races before racing to the front with 20-30 laps to go. By using that strategy they can often see the trouble happening in front of them. When it subsides, they can find a drafting partner and zoom to the front.
She might not have much experience with the tandems, but Patrick knows they will be key on Sunday.
"I think you're still going to be able to do some tandem [drafting] to catch back up, if that's the case, and at the end of the day I believe what is going to win the race is something [with a] tandem."
The quality of competition might also pose a problem for Patrick. This isn't the Nationwide Series where young drivers are competing against a sprinkling of Cup drivers on a Saturday afternoon. This is the Sprint Cup Series where the best stock cars drivers in the world compete on a weekly basis. And this isn't any ordinary race -- it's the Daytona 500 -- the one race that every stock car driver dreams of winning.
For those who follow football, consider Patrick a pretty good college football player with professional potential who suddenly gets thrust into the Super Bowl for her first ever NFL game.
Edwards concedes that the level of competition might be a challenge for Patrick.
"If she's out there and she's got a race car, she's got a chance," said Edwards, who's seeking his first Daytona 500 victory. "I think she has a really good chance at Daytona. ... She probably has a better chance here than she does at a place like Phoenix -- anybody in her position would. But this level is cutthroat and very, very tough. I'm a confident race car driver. When I got into this Cup Series I thought, 'Man, I'm going to go out here and I'm going to be awesome,' and they dropped the green flag in my first race. It was a 400-mile race at Michigan and the way that everybody drove down in the first corner I thought, 'Holy crap, if these guys are going to race like this for 400 miles, this is going to be something different.'"
But if the race comes down to tandems, Patrick will rely on that same competition to reach Victory Lane. Though most have speculated Stewart would be the driver helping Patrick on Sunday, don't forget about Dale Earnhardt Jr. He is also a master of restrictor-plate racing and won the 2004 Daytona 500. It doesn't hurt that Patrick drives for Earnhardt's Nationwide Series team at JR Motorsports.
"I'll help Danica just like I help anybody else," Earnhardt said. "It's whatever helps me. If she needs help and that helps me I'll help her."
Patrick is guaranteed a starting position in the Daytona 500, so she'll use Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona as a chance to experiment and work with other drivers in similar racing conditions to Sunday's Daytona 500. But she says practice may not determine who hits Victory Lane at the Great American Race.
"I think there's a little more luck in certain ways with the Daytona 500 just because of the style of racing that it is," Patrick said. "There is no bad driver that wins the Daytona 500 -- that's for sure. But things have to fall your way and you've got to stay out of trouble ... so I just think there is a little more of a luck side involved with it and you can't account for that."
Based on past history and experience, a Patrick victory in the Daytona 500 is a longshot at best. But in this game, sometimes the most valuable tool of all is Lady Luck.
"It all comes down to luck," Patrick admits. "I have a fast car so I think that's taken care of but I think it's going to take some good breaks and a patient race, staying out of trouble. ... I think luck is going to play a big factor."