It’s the question everyone is asking after Danica Patrick’s historic pole-winning run on Sunday.
Can she win the Daytona 500?
In a word -- absolutely.
Her No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet is clearly the fastest car at Daytona. She won the pole at 196.434 mph, with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon the only other driver to top 196 mph.
She also led both of Saturday’s practice sessions, the only driver hit 196 mph that day.
Still, racing at Daytona can be much different than qualifying and there is a list of upset pole winners who came up short in their bids to win the 500.
Older fans may remember the Goodyear-Hoosier tire war of 1994 when Loy Allen Jr. won the first of three poles that season at Daytona.
While the Hoosier tires were great for a qualifying lap, Allen wasn’t a factor during the race. He failed to lead a single lap and finished 22nd, two laps off the pace of race winner Sterling Marlin.
There have been other surprise pole winners like Ramo Stott, Jeff Green and David Gilliland.
Patrick is in a much different spot than those previous pole winners. She’s in a car running the same Hendrick engines as outside pole winner Gordon.
It truly was no surprise that she bettered Janet Guthrie’s qualifying record for a woman in the Sprint Cup Series, and not that much of an upset that she won the pole.
Guthrie started ninth at Talladega in 1977, and matched that mark later in the season at Bristol’s Volunteer 500. That season, she also started 10th at Pocono and 12th at Michigan.
Prior to Sunday, Patrick’s best Sprint Cup Series start was 23rd at Atlanta.
However, she has a history as a strong qualifier.
During her days racing open-wheel cars, Patrick would have likely won the pole for the 2005 Indianapolis 500 if not for an untimely wind gust coming along. Along with a third-place finish at Indy and becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar Series race in Japan, Patrick won three poles in Indy Cars.
She also won the pole for last season’s Nationwide Series opener at Daytona.
In addition to Patrick’s strong car and penchant for making history, consider the record book at Daytona and Talladega are dotted with upset winners.
Last week, the Wood Brothers brought out the car Tiny Lund drove to the 1963 Daytona 500 win and just two years ago, Knoxville driver Trevor Bayne, also in a No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, became the youngest winner in race history at age 20.
In between, winners at the largest superspeedways include names like Richard Brickhouse, Greg Sacks, Bobby Hillin Jr. and Derrike Cope.
Bayne also has to be considered a serious contender to win his second Daytona 500 after qualifying third, best among Ford drivers.
Thursday’s 150-mile could shed some light on who might be the race favorite. Matt Kenseth won the second of last year’s qualifying races and went on to record his second Daytona 500 victory.
Overshadowed on Patrick’s historic day was the rock-solid performance of Funny Car driver Courtney Force at the NHRA Winternationals.
After earning the No. 1 qualifier award, Force had the low elapsed time (4.025 seconds) of the elimination rounds and the top speed at 318.24 mph.
Coming on the heels of winning the Road to the Future Award (NHRA’s version of Rookie of the Year), Force picked up her third career top qualifier award and second career Funny Car victory.
Greeneville driver Allen Johnson made it to the quarterfinals in his first race as defending Pro Stock champion.
He lost to fellow Dodge driver V. Gaines, although Johnson’s teammates Vincent Nobile and Jeg Coughlin Jr. made it to the championship round.
Nobile won the season-opening race when Coughlin red-lighted at the start. Johnson could take consolation in posting the best reaction time (.007 of a second) of the weekend.