Danica_01The Daytona 500 is over, and Danica Patrick delivered, underscoring the historic achievement of being the first woman to win the pole for NASCAR’s most important race. Patrick drove in the top pack all Sunday afternoon. It’s also a rare accomplishment for the pole sitter to win this long and always eventful race, but she led it twice, for five laps under green-flag conditions, thereby breaking another gender barrier.

When the white flag waved, signaling the start of the two hundredth and final lap on this monstrous, tricky, narrow track, Patrick held third place. She stayed third through turns one and two, still running the preferred high line, and everybody held his or her breath, hoping for a bold move on the back straightaway.

Danica_03Instead, by the time she emerged from turn four and headed home, five NASCAR veterans had interposed themselves between her and the finish line. Jimmie Johnson won it—for a payday above $1.5 million—and Patrick was eighth. Her most preeminent precursor, Janet Guthrie, had once finished sixth in a NASCAR race at Bristol, Tennessee—as well as leading the 1977 Daytona 500 under a yellow flag—so Patrick still has one mark to shoot for.

Some drivers would have rejoiced at the top-ten finish. Instead, Patrick, 30, who nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 while breaking all Guthrie’s records there, and later, in 2008, did win the Indy Japan 300, convincingly restrained any jubilation after climbing from her Chevrolet.

“If I was going to dive low,” she said, pausing to cackle disdainfully at the thought, “I had a feeling I was gonna get freight-trained.” Because of how cars run faster together than alone, she might have finished eighteenth, not eighth.

What It Means

Nevertheless, it’s easy to assess the outcome as a major accomplishment. Women everywhere--and a whole lot of men, too--were almost giddy with excitement before the race. One friend of ours, a woman almost as petite as Patrick, said she became a NASCAR fan again. She had tuned out after being present at Daytona in 2001, when the great Dale Earnhardt was killed.

“This race meant a lot,” our friend e-mailed. “I was in tears today with respect, happiness, awe, passion, and triumph. It was a historic day for women drivers and women in the field.”

Beyond reconciling an old fan and maybe winning new ones, Patrick’s achievement is the bellwether for how the sport is now viewed—and not so much from the inside out. No longer the bastion of retrograde Southern culture, NASCAR today is full of sophisticated and large-minded people. They come from every corner of the country, from Formula 1, Indy racing—even Australia. Five-time NASCAR champion Johnson is a San Diegan; in two weeks, he’ll compete in an exhibition event that includes surfing, car racing, and skiing all in the same day. Hard to imagine the sport’s old moonshining pioneers being able to relate.

Beyond the garage area, though, some changes could indeed be made. The cringe factor had already started percolating days before the race when an interviewer asked Patrick if, finding herself in Victory Circle, she would adhere to the old tradition of kissing the trophy girl.

And during the race’s broadcast, the awkward comments included honorary starter James Franco’s command, “Drivers—and Danica—start your engines!” Later on, did we really need to hear about Patrick’s romantic pas de deux with another driver? "Take a shot every time they mention Danica and Ricky’s relationship,” @robstewart93 tweeted. “That’ll get you drunk fast."

This Is What We Call a Role Model

While still a teenager, Patrick went from dropping out of school in Roscoe, Illinois, to racing in England, enduring many travails in the process; as much as learning to handle cars, she learned to handle herself. She’s used to the fawning and the flubbing. After winning the pole, she handled the immense pressure with grace. And how she raced did nothing to make Jeff Gordon’s five-year-old daughter, Ella, regret her request for a photo with the fastest qualifier.

If Patrick keeps up like this, sell off your Mattel stock. Little girls will start asking for go-karts instead of Barbies.