DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Danica Patrick made more history at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday.
She became the first woman to lead a lap and was the highest female finisher in the famed Daytona 500. She led five laps and finished eighth. Janet Guthrie had the previous best finish for a woman in the Daytona 500 – 11th in 1980.
“You spend a lot of time thinking about what to do when the time comes,” Patrick said. “I kept asking up above what was working. You needed a hole, you needed people to help you out. I had a little bit of help today here and there, but I felt like if I was going to dive low, I had a feeling I was going to get freight-trained. … At the end of the day, it was a solid day.”
Patrick, the former IndyCar star and current Sprint Cup rookie, was in position to make a run at winner Jimmie Johnson in the final laps. But Patrick faded, dropping from third to eighth as more experienced drivers passed her.
“We stayed basically in the top 10 all day long,” she said. “You can’t really complain about that. It was nice.”
Patrick stayed out of trouble in a 200-lap race that saw several top contenders knocked out early.
Patrick started the “Great American Race” on the pole after becoming the first woman to qualify in the top spot. She failed to lead the first lap, though, falling behind three-time race winner Jeff Gordon.
Nonetheless, it was a big moment for NASCAR and Patrick.
But Patrick got her chance to be out front near the midway point. Fans were on their feet as Patrick beat Michael Waltrip to the front of the field on a restart. She led laps 90 and 91 and three more later before making a pit stop.
Patrick also made history as an IndyCar driver. She led 19 laps as a rookie in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, becoming the first woman to lead open-wheel racing’s premier event. She finished fourth.
Earnhardt second – again
Dale Earnhardt Jr. swerved below Danica Patrick, powered past Greg Biffle and closed in on leader Jimmie Johnson’s bumper.
It was the closest he got to the front of the field.
Earnhardt used a last-lap charge Sunday to finish second in the Daytona 500 for the third time in the last four years, another runner-up performance that left NASCAR’s most popular driver clamoring to get back to Victory Lane at one of auto racing’s showcase events.
He also was second in 2010 and 2012.
Earnhardt says winning the Daytona 500 – he accomplished the feat in 2004 – is “like a drug, I assume.”
He added: “It’s such a high. You just don’t know when you’ll ever get that opportunity again or if you’ll ever get that opportunity again.”
Fans allowed to switch seats
Fans feeling unsafe after the terrifying crash at Daytona International Speedway a day earlier were able to change seats for NASCAR’s biggest race.
Workers successfully repaired a section of fence – 54 feet wide and 22 feet high – that was shredded Saturday when Kyle Larson’s car went airborne on the final lap of a second-tier race and crashed through the barrier that separates cars from fans. Large pieces of debris, including a tire, sprayed into the upper and lower section of the stands.
The crash the day before the Daytona 500 injured more than 30 people, raising more questions about fan safety at race tracks.
Halifax Health spokesman Byron Cogdell said seven people with crash-related injuries remained hospitalized in Daytona Beach in stable condition. The six people brought to a different Halifax hospital in Port Orange with crash-related injuries had all been discharged, Cogdell said.
A spokeswoman at Florida Memorial Medical Center would not release information on the patients brought to that hospital.
Track President Joie Chitwood, meanwhile, said if any fans are uncomfortable with their up-close seating for the Daytona 500, officials would work to move them.
“If fans are unhappy with their seating location or if they have any incidents, we would relocate them,” Chitwood said. “So we’ll treat that area like we do every other area of the grandstand. If a fan is not comfortable where they’re sitting, we make every accommodation we can.”
There were several wrecks during the Daytona 500, though nothing that put fans in danger.
Larry Spencer of Nanticoke, Pa., said he wasn’t sure if he wants to ever sit that low again after his 15-year-old brother, Derrick, needed three stitches in his cheek after being hit by metal debris flying from Saturday’s crash. A day after sitting close to the fence, they returned with tickets dozens of rows farther away from the track.
“I thought it was just neat to see the cars going by that close,” Spencer said. “After yesterday, though, I definitely will reconsider sitting lower ever again.”
The tire that flew into the stands landed a couple of rows above where they had been standing. After the crash, looking around at the people seriously injured, Spencer said he decided to take his brother to a hospital himself so that speedway crews and paramedics could focus on the people who needed more help.
Track workers finished repairs about 2 a.m. Sunday, having installed a new fence post, new metal meshing and part of the concrete wall.