By winning the pole for the Daytona 500, Danica Patrick on Sunday gave new meaning to the phrase, "You go, girl!"
Never, in NASCAR's 65-year history, has a female driver won a pole position in a Sprint Cup race. To do so, for any race, would be a significant accomplishment in and of itself.
But to win the pole for NASCAR's marquee race, its so-called Super Bowl—nicknamed The Great American Race, no less—was an achievement that truly is historic any way you look at it.
And not just because Patrick is a female.
Rather, it's because she beat the best of NASCAR's best and became the fastest of the fastest on Sunday. In addition, Patrick hopefully opened some eyes and closed some mouths of critics who have ridiculed her attempt to make it as a full-time Sprint Cup driver.
So what if she's a woman? Underneath that lime green fire suit is a bound and determined race car driver at heart. Some people have derided her throughout her career, yet the feisty Patrick has ignored the gender criticism and kept working at learning and improving upon her craft.
That's what great race car drivers do—they hone, refine and continually improve their God-given natural talent behind the wheel until they become the best. Richard Petty did it. The late Dale Earnhardt, whose death 12 years ago we mark Monday, did it. Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and every other current driver in the Sprint Cup series did it.
Why has Patrick been so unjustly labeled a joke, a female freak show or someone that is just out for publicity? Sure, she's attractive, makes memorable TV commercials and is a publicity magnet, but she will always be a race car driver, first and foremost.
From her early days spent overseas in Formula cars, to becoming the most popular—although admittedly not the most successful—driver in the IndyCar Series, to her foray into NASCAR, Patrick has continued moving forward.
At any point in her racing career, it would have been easy for the Roscoe, Ill. native to give up, to bow to the pressure and belief of critics that, frankly, she just wasn't all that good.
But, for every time she was laughed at, the famous scowl on Patrick's face—not to mention her resolve—grew more taut. The more her critics blasted her, the more determined Patrick became to succeed and prove her foes wrong. It took her a long time, but she finally earned her comeuppance against those that seemed so afraid of her gender and ability.
After Sunday's historic qualifying run, Patrick has earned the right to gloat and tell her detractors to, well, kiss her you know what.
Mark my word, many of those that have criticized her over the years will now want to jump on the Danica bandwagon. They'll take back everything they've said about her—well, almost everything in some cases.
And you know what? Here's the scariest reality for her critics to consider:
Patrick not only made history Sunday, she immediately became a legitimate candidate to actually win the 55th running of the Daytona 500.
She has just as good of a chance of winning next Sunday as Jeff Gordon, defending 500 winner Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and every other driver in the 43-car field.
If she does win the 500, can you imagine what that would mean to the sport, to fellow female racers and to sports fans in general, and NASCAR fans specifically? The resulting publicity would be off the charts, one of the greatest individual achievements by a female athlete anywhere.
It also could present perhaps the most serious challenge to the 10-year reign of Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the sport's most popular driver.
About a month ago, I wrote a Bleacher Report column that speculated Patrick could be ready to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in three to five years. I predicted that she would progress slowly and methodically, take her lumps and learn valuable lessons, but that she ultimately would become a true contender, female or not.
I took a lot of heat for writing that column. One very high-profile member of the media publicly lambasted and derided me, just as he did Danica's attempt to make it in Sprint Cup. In response, I just let him spout his venom. Some people are just too old or set in their ways to change their minds, even if those minds clearly are narrow-minded, stereotypical and downright discriminatory.
It's funny how someone like that can be so critical or laugh at another human being, just because she's a female. I'm very curious to see what his response will be to the outstanding feat she achieved Sunday. It can't be ignored, it can't be criticized and it can't be overlooked.
More so, Sunday's pole-winning performance was not a fluke. You can't blame it on the weather or on 45 other drivers having an off-day. Danica came, she saw and conquered.
While Sunday was indeed a special first, something tells me that this is just the beginning for Patrick. And to her critics, swallow your pride—NASCAR's best just had their butt kicked by—yep—a girl.
Deal with it.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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