All eyes on Danica Patrick at Daytona 500
(Reuters) - When Danica Patrick made her Daytona 500 debut last year there were some who wondered if the media circus that surrounded her at NASCAR's top event was a tad excessive.
She was only the third woman to compete in what is known as "The Great American Race" but some voices in the media wondered if she merited more attention than more established drivers such as five-time Sprint Cup winner Jimmie Johnson.
So when Patrick's car was damaged as she spun off the track on the second lap when she was caught up in a five-car crash, the skeptics could afford themselves a little smugness.
But on Sunday, Patrick will start the Daytona 500 from pole position and this time no one will doubt she deserves all the attention she is receiving or her credentials to compete with the very best.
Patrick, who ran a partial Sprint Cup program last year, showed she was ready to race full-time in American stock car racing by qualifying with a top speed of 196.434 mph around Daytona International Speedway last Sunday.
Her top speed was the fastest qualifying effort at Daytona since 1990 and inevitably raised talk about her becoming the first woman to win the coveted prize.
It is a fascinating and rare opportunity to see a woman take on the men in a high-profile sport as so many other events keep men and women apart, even those with no physical contact and which come purely down to speed.
Last year, Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn tried in vain to get a chance to race in the men's downhill at Lake Louise in Canada, but NASCAR, always keen to broaden its appeal from their southern, white, male roots, have no gender barrier and have relished having Patrick in the sport.
Jeff Gordon, who will start alongside Patrick on the pole, summed up the feeling after qualifying: "It's great to be a part of history with Danica being on the pole. I think we all know how popular she is, what this will do for our sport."
Patrick, who has astutely marketed herself throughout her career in IndyCar racing and then NASCAR with some lucrative and high-profile endorsement deals, including regular appearances in Super Bowl commercials, is not talking down her chances.
"When pressure's on, when the spotlight is on, I do feel like it ultimately ends up becoming some of my better moments, better races, better results," she said earlier this week.
"I'm grateful for it because the opposite of that would be I'm guessing I probably wouldn't be here today, and I wouldn't be in the position I'm in.
"I've been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things. I really just hope that I don't stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make."
But pole position in stock car racing, especially over 500 miles, is incomparable with the advantage the start brings in some other forms of racing, such as Formula One.
Just nine of the 54 men to win the Daytona 500 have started in pole position and the race is famous for throwing up unlikely victors. Two years ago a 20-year-old Trevor Bayne triumphed in his second Sprint Cup start but finished that season ranked 53rd and has yet to win in the series since.
The surprises are also in who has not won the biggest race in the sport - Tony Stewart has won three Cup championships and 47 career wins in NASCAR's top series but has never triumphed in 14 attempts at the Daytona 500.
Stewart will have his eye on the prize again on Sunday but, regardless of his performance, he also knows the Stewart-Haas team he co-owns is going to be at the center of attention as Patrick in among their racers.
Dale Earnhardt Jr, the 2004 winner, is among the favorites at the circuit where his father died after a crash in 2001.
Kevin Harvick, the 2007 winner and Kyle Busch are also among the most highly-fancied for the Harley J. Earl Trophy.
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)