Racecar drivers don’t like to get beat, but there are many who feel good about rival driver Danica Patrick beating them to win the pole for the Daytona 500 Sunday.

Patrick’s historic pole-winning run will have people talking about NASCAR, which will have a female driver leading the field to the green flag of its biggest race for the first time in Sprint Cup history.

The pole for Patrick, already a worldwide celebrity thanks to her IndyCar success and popular and racy TV commercials, will give the sport incredible exposure going into its biggest event next Sunday.

“Being history making, this is about as big of a deal exposure-wise as you could possibly get,” said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who will start second beside Patrick in the Daytona 500.

“I’m not surprised. They’ve been fast in testing, fast in practice and that was a heck of a lap.”

The best start for a woman in any Daytona 500 came in 1980 when Janet Guthrie started 18th and finished 11th. The highest start for any woman in a Cup race was Guthrie, who twice started ninth in 1977, at Talladega and Bristol.

“I’m glad I didn’t win the pole,” Gordon quipped in the Daytona International Speedway media center. “It would have messed that story all up. I’ve always been a big believer in what is good for the sport is good for all of us.

“This is great for the sport. The rest of us will benefit from that as well. I’m proud to be on the front row side-by-side with Danica.”

In addition to her historic performance, drivers were pleased that the talk surrounding Patrick dealt with her winning the pole and not her personal life. Her romantic relationship with fellow Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has dominated headlines this week.

“It’s good for everybody to shift the focus to what they’re doing as a team and on the racetrack, what they’re doing with performance,” said Kevin Harvick, who took jabs at the media Saturday night for its coverage of Patrick’s relationship with Stenhouse.

“It’s a huge deal for our sport to have her on the front row of the Daytona 500 and definitely sets a new milestone in our sport. That’s pretty neat, and I’m just glad it’s for all the right reasons.”

It is no secret that at a track such as Daytona, the driver doesn’t play as much of a role in winning the pole as the car.

“It just shows a lot about her abilities and her team’s abilities,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “She’s got a great team.”

That team isn’t just the Stewart-Haas Racing team but also the Hendrick engines the team uses. Hendrick engines took the top two spots—Patrick with a speed of 196.434 mph, Gordon with a speed of 162.292—as well as five of the top six speeds.

Patrick will be making only her 11th Cup start. The former IndyCar driver ran two partial Nationwide Series seasons before a full-time Nationwide and part-time Cup schedule in 2012.

She was 10th in the final Nationwide standings last season to earn the best finish of any woman in the series standings. Her fourth-place finish in the Nationwide race at Las Vegas in 2011 was the best for a woman in that series.

In her 10 Cup races last year for Stewart-Haas Racing, she struggled in most events but had her best finish in her last race with a 17th at Phoenix.

“It’s good for the buildup of the Daytona 500, … (but) this doesn’t change (our perspective of her) a whole lot because it’s just one lap and you’re holding it wide open,” said Denny Hamlin, who was seventh in qualifying.

“Once we get to those other racetracks where really she started to prove herself at the end of last year, that is where you start to gain the respect she started to earn towards the end of last year.”

Hamlin felt she had the best car.

“You put any one of these 43 drivers in that car and they’ll get the pole,” Hamlin said. “It’s not like it used to be. Until lifting is a factor in Daytona, it’s going to be all about the car.”

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip wasn’t so sure.

“You’ll hear all the drivers get out and say, ‘I didn’t do nothing, anybody can do this,’” Waltrip said. “But you’ve got to get that crew chief input, you’ve got to tell him when it’s rubbing the road, and then you’ve got to go out there and make the perfect lap in order to be able to get on the pole.

“She deserves some credit. The car deserves more. But she’s getting right where she needs to be so she can make a lot of heads turn in 2013.”

But it’s only a pole, and there will be a race next Sunday that more people will remember.

“It (will) give us a temporary hype,” said defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski. “But every year we come down here, qualifying day feels like the biggest day ever when you do it.”

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