DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick made history in the season-opening Daytona 500, where she hit new milestones again and again and again.
She became the first woman to earn the top starting spot in a Sprint Cup event with her pole-winning run, then became the first woman to lead laps under green at NASCAR's top level on race day. Those five laps out front put her in an exclusive club of only 13 drivers who have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500.
And of the 13 in that club, only six of them — Patrick, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Robby Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart — have led at least five laps in each race.
Then Patrick finished eighth — the highest for a woman in Daytona 500 history.
As NASCAR heads back to Daytona for Saturday night's race under the lights, her crew chief expects much of the same from Patrick.
"Goals for July are the same as they were in February when we went to Daytona," Tony Gibson said. "We want to go down there and we want to make a statement."
Gibson has every intention of seeing Patrick put the bright green No. 10 Chevrolet on the pole again. But this time he wants to see her get the finish she deserves.
Patrick learned a hard lesson in the closing laps of the 500 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. schooled her with a late move that catapulted him to a second-place finish. There are some who also thought she might have had a chance to win it a few laps earlier if she'd pulled out of traffic and cut off the bottom lane — a move that might have forced the line of traffic to push her to the lead.
"We want to try to sit on the pole again, obviously, and this time come up a few spots," Gibson said. "We felt like we had a shot to win it, ran in the top three or four all day and had a fast car, and it came down to the last lap and kind of got snookered (by Earnhardt) a little bit there at the end. But we felt like we were definitely in contention to win it, so we're going back there with the same mindset, to try to be the fastest car in qualifying and try to close the deal at the end of this thing."
Patrick wasn't pleased with the final outcome in February.
"I was disappointed at the end of the race that I just didn't have a better grasp as to what I needed to do to shoot for a better finish than where I was," she said.
Stewart, the team co-owner, has tried to explain to Patrick she should be content with the race she ran. But she can't help but look back and wonder how things might have gone if she had the experience to set up a strategy in the closing laps.
"I just felt like I was just frustrated that I didn't have a better plan," she said. "Tony said to me, 'I really feel like you had more to lose in your position than you had to gain by trying something, so I think that you did the right thing.' That made me feel better. A little bit."
Jimmie Johnson, who went on to win his second 500 in a row, told Patrick she also did a good job and that he didn't have a plan for either of his victories. He also watched a video of the race and found only one thing she could have done different — back up to Earnhardt as he set her up for his pass.
"To have somebody like Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson tell me that on some level I made good decisions out there at the very end, that was a really nice thing for them to say," she said. "It makes me feel a little bit better. I still feel like I want to have a better plan in the future but, in that moment, I had made some good decisions. So, it was appreciated."
THREE-WIDE: IndyCar is going old-school for the return of the "Triple Crown."
The series announced Wednesday it will utilize three-wide starts in the season-ending race at Fontana, Calif., which is the final leg in the Triple Crown challenge. IndyCar had previously announced it will use three-wide starts for Sunday's race at Pocono, the second leg.
Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan is the only driver eligible to win the $1 million prize if he can win all three races. A driver who wins two of the three can win a $250,000 bonus from promotion sponsor Fuzzy's Vodka.
Three-wide starts have been used at Indianapolis since 1921, and were used at Pocono and Ontario (Calif.) Speedway during the 1970s and '80s for the Triple Crown legs.
"After having the opportunity to test at Pocono and a successful event at Auto Club Speedway last season, we were able to analyze track data and compare to our current start procedure for the Indianapolis 500," said IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield. "Given the speeds of our starts, the location of acceleration zones, the spacing between rows and the length of the front straights at each track, we have decided to move forward with a three-wide lineup for the initial starts."
IndyCar ran a "Triple Crown" at Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario from 1971- 1980 and from 1981-1989 at Indy, Pocono and Michigan. Only Al Unser won all three races in a single season, in 1978.
RAGAN RETURNS: David Ragan has a lot of ground to cover if he plans to contend for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
A win at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night would go a long way toward that goal.
Ragan heads into Daytona this weekend ranked 29th in the Sprint Cup standings. But he's got a win in his pocket from earlier this season at Talladega, and every reason to believe he can make it two victories on the year Saturday night.
Ragan's only other career Cup victory was in the July race at Daytona in 2011.
"If you can have an incident-free day and I make good decisions the last 15-20 laps, we can win the race," Ragan said. "That's the attitude we have when we go to Daytona. We have a lot of fun at Daytona and we've been successful."
Ragan led just four laps at Talladega, but was out front when it mattered as he and David Gilliland gave tiny Front Row Motorsports a 1-2 upset finish. In all, Ragan has two wins in his last five races at restrictor-plate tracks, and has four top-10 finishes in 10 career races at Daytona.
A win Saturday night could edge him closer to the top 20 in points, where he must be to be eligible for one of two wild-card berths into the Chase. If he could crack the top 20, those two wins would be tough to beat among wild-card contenders.
"Nothing is out of the realm of possibility," he said. "If you get a second win, that's a lot of points, but you need a strong stretch of finishes leading into Richmond. It is something that can make things interesting, but first things first. You got to be there at the end and you got to win the race. It could happen."
DAYS OF THUNDER: The City Chevrolet paint scheme made famous in the movie "Days of Thunder" will be back on the track this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
Kurt Busch will use the paint scheme in Friday night's Nationwide Series race at Daytona, where he will be driving for Phoenix Racing. It's a tribute paint scheme for the one driven by Cole Trickle, played by Tom Cruise in the movie.
The tribute was made possible by Phoenix Racing, Hendrick Automotive Group, Busch and the Armed Forces Foundation, which will have its logo on the rear quarter panel to help draw attention to the "Help Save Our Troops" campaign that aids veterans with post-traumatic stress and brain injuries.
"To be able to drive the City Chevrolet car at Daytona is awesome," Busch said. "I really appreciate everyone wanting to do something special for my last ride with Phoenix Racing. Being able to drive this iconic car in the Subway Firecracker 250 to raise awareness for the Armed Forces Foundation's Help Save Our Troops campaign makes it all the more meaningful. I can't wait to get out there, drop the hammer and maybe do a little rubbin'."
Rick Hendrick was a technical adviser on "Days of Thunder," and City Chevrolet is the flagship dealership he owns in Charlotte, N.C. The dealership was used as Trickle's sponsor in the movie and the car owner portrayed by Randy Quaid was modeled after Hendrick.
"When Kurt approached me about running the City Chevrolet paint scheme at Daytona, I thought it was a fun idea," said Hendrick. "City Chevrolet is our flagship store, and it holds a lot of meaning for me personally. Having the car featured in "Days of Thunder" was really special, and we still hear from fans about it.
"If Kurt drives anything like Tom (Cruise) did in the movie, we might see City Chevrolet in Victory Lane. That would be pretty exciting for me and everyone at Hendrick Automotive Group."