Danica Patrick will be on the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500, the first woman to win the top spot in the sport’s prestigious Opening Day event. It’s a milestone for a woman in a sport almost entirely comprised of men.
Beyond that, what it means is unclear. To win the pole, you have to drive faster than anyone without crashing. You aren’t driving in traffic, against competition and tire wear and fatigue. You’re just facing the clock. Racing is much more than that. Rubbin’ is racin’, as Robert Duvall taught us, but so is grudges and taps and drafting and the occasional display of pugilism in pit road. We may find Patrick has arrived if, after a race, a fellow driver unhooks his netting, climbs out the window, flings off his helmet and punches her. I have a feeling she’ll punch back.
Patrick is on the cusp of being the complete sports star: talent, good looks and a knack for self-promotion. That one she has in spades, and she’s smart — that one matters a lot in the digital age. What she’s missing, however, is crucial: victories. Victories on big stages, dramatic victories, comeback victories. Patrick can be a star based on her looks — the Anna Kournikova of racing — but if she wants to be a true star, she has to win. She has an IndyCar win under her belt, but IndyCar does not have the fan base of NASCAR. Poles on big stages are a step, but pole-winners aren’t stars.