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Danica Patrick races for history

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
February 24, 2013 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Danica Patrick has made racing history, <a href='http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1533187-daytona-500-qualifying-results-2013-pole-position-winners-leaders-and-analysis?hpt=hp_t1' target='_blank'>becoming the first woman in the history of NASCAR</a> to win the pole for any race. Here, Patrick sits in her car during practice for the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway in 2012 in Avondale, Arizona. This slide show looks back at Patrick's exciting career through the years. Danica Patrick has made racing history, becoming the first woman in the history of NASCAR to win the pole for any race. Here, Patrick sits in her car during practice for the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway in 2012 in Avondale, Arizona. This slide show looks back at Patrick's exciting career through the years.
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Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
Danica Patrick through the years
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • No woman has ever won the Daytona 500
  • Danica Patrick holds the pole position for Sunday's race
  • Mike Downey says a win for Danica Patrick would be "giant checkered flag for womankind"
  • Downey: "I will be pulling for Patrick"

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

(CNN) -- "Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life" (1913) is a 13-minute silent movie. In it, Oldfield, the most famous auto racer of his day, races to rescue a damsel in distress whom a mustache-twirling villain has chained to a railroad track.

(You can watch the whole thing on YouTube if you like. Spoiler alert: A few of the characters get killed.)

A hundred years later, Danica Patrick, the most famous auto racer of HER day, will be on a track Sunday in the race of HER life. Very vulnerable, very motivated, she will be a hero to many in the audience and a villain to some.

Go, Danni.

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

Daytona 500s have been running since 1959. They have been won by Richard Petty and his dad, by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his dad, by Davey Allison and his dad, by the brothers Waltrip, by a 50-year-old, by a 20-year-old and by a whole lot of fine gents down South.

Just ain't never been won by no woman.

I will be pulling for Patrick, now that she holds the pole position for Sunday's race, for this reason and for no other -- just because it would be something unique. A surge forward. A giant checkered flag for womankind.

Bleacher Report: Danica Patrick Still Has Much to Prove Amidst NASCAR's Best Drivers

Danica Patrick ready for Daytona 500
Danica Patrick: 'Gender doesn't matter'
Racing pioneer's advice for Danica

You often see women IN auto races. You just seldom see women WIN auto races.

I haven't personally seen one cross a finish line first since Lindsay Lohan drove a VW Beetle to victory in that movie "Herbie: Fully Loaded."

Excuse me, then, for being of the opinion that Danica Patrick winning the Daytona 500 would be a pretty cool thing. It would be up there with other unlikely things I never expected to see in my lifetime, like Ben Affleck maybe beating Steven Spielberg for an Oscar.

Now, note that I didn't call this person the most distinguished driver of her day. Or the best in any way. (Except at posing in a bikini.)

Danica Patrick on February 17 became the first woman to win the pole position for the Daytona 500, considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR. Look back at other milestones for women who have been breaking barriers in sports. Danica Patrick on February 17 became the first woman to win the pole position for the Daytona 500, considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR. Look back at other milestones for women who have been breaking barriers in sports.
Female firsts in sports
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Photos: Female firsts in sports Photos: Female firsts in sports

I have a high regard for the men of this profession, many of whom might find Patrick's famous face in their rear-view mirrors Sunday on their cannonball run toward Victory Lane. It wouldn't shock me a bit if her green No. 10 Chevrolet SS ended up in the back of the pack. Or racked or wrecked. Or up on some tow truck's hook. Or overheating under the hood like a '57 Bel Air.

Pits happen.

If things do go wrong, that's OK. They do to everybody, male or female. Cars break down. Drivers make mistakes. Jerks come out of nowhere and cut you off. Hey, consider yourself lucky these days if you go for a drive and don't end up waiting for deep-voiced Dennis Haysbert and his insurance folks from Allstate.

Bleacher Report: Daytona 500: Danica Patrick Can Break Ground for Women's Sports with Victory

Patrick's life will be totally fine even if she doesn't win. She makes a ton of money. She has a mean, green publicity machine. She even has a new boyfriend. (A fellow driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) She still has her Go Daddy! ads, although, to be perfectly frank with you, I still have no clue to this day what it is Go Daddy! is supposed to do for you.

She is resented by some for her fame.

"What has she ever won?" is a common refrain.

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Hey, this woman placed third in the 2009 Indianapolis 500. That is not nothing. Do you know what the great Barney Oldfield's best finish was in an Indy 500? Fifth. He still ended up in movies and doing endorsements and becoming the most famous car racer of his time. That's show biz.

Patrick has come a long way since being a high school cheerleader in Rockton, Illinois, during her Fast Times at Hononegah High teens. She drove go-karts. She had a need for speed. She liked to get behind the wheel of anything with wheels.

What else would you expect of someone born in Beloit, Wisconsin, where a man (Arthur P. Warner) supposedly invented the first automobile speedometer? Or from a woman who was brought up in an Illinois county called Winnebago. I mean, some girls are born to be debutantes or doctors. Danica Patrick was born to be first in line at the DMV.

She is not a true pioneer. I mean, we are not talking Amelia Earhart here.

Odette Siko and Marguerite Mareuse, a couple of Frenchwomen, drove a Bugatti in the 24 Hours of LeMans endurance race of 1932. They took seventh place.

(I can confirm neither did a sexy ad for a "Go Pere!" website.)

Sarah Fisher has driven in the Indy 500 nine times, Lyn St. James seven times.

I once covered a Riverside, California, race where a Ford Mustang driven by St. James was going 160 mph when it swerved into a wall and burst into flames, while a rival car went airborne. St. James was bruised and battered, but limped away to race another day.

Female drivers are tough, man. Shirley Muldowney's nitro-fuel dragster once had a front tire blow in Montreal and she broke both legs when it crashed. If you go to Shirley's website, the autographed items you can purchase include her fire suits.

It isn't as if Daytona hasn't seen any estrogen along with all that testosterone. (No, these are not new products from Pennzoil.) As far back as 1977, a true trailblazer, Janet Guthrie, drove in the 500. She finished ahead of Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Ricky Rudd, Salt Walther, Richard Petty -- not bad.

So she never won it. Big flamin' deal.

You think it's easy to race WITH the best, much less beat them, hey, let's see you try it.

Bleacher Report: Danica Patrick: Why a Win at Daytona 500 Would Ruffle Feathers of Fellow Drivers

Daytona 500s attract the best drivers in the business. It is the Super Bowl of its sport. It has given its fans countless thrills, ever since Lee Petty (daddy of Richard) sped to the checkered flag in his Olds simultaneously with Johnny Beauchamp's T-Bird in a photo finish that required three days to sort out.

(Petty won and was handed a nice $19,000, if you'll pardon the expression, purse.)

Oh, the great competitors we have seen, from "Fireball" Roberts to "Tiny" Lund, from the coincidental Yarborough (Cale) vs. Yarbrough (LeeRoy) clash of 1968, from the climactic spinout of '76 when Pearson was able to get his Mercury to crawl and sputter across the finish line.

What a blast it was in 1989 to see Darrell Waltrip finally win at Daytona on his 17th try -- and on fumes, with a fuel tank that was very definitely on E.

What a pleasure to see the superpopular, bizarrely doomed Dale Earnhardt take the checkered flag there in '98 after two decades of being a Daytona also-ran. To win on the same track where in 2001 he would die. On the same track where in 2004 the same race would be won by his son.

Legends and lore are what it's all about at the Daytona 500.

So I wouldn't mind this one becoming the Danica 500.

Floor it, lady.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

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