DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – If two practices are any indication, Danica Patrick is a solid candidate to win the pole for the Daytona 500.
Patrick turned the fastest lap Saturday in a pair of practice sessions focused solely on qualifying for the Daytona 500. She went 196.220 mph around Daytona International Speedway in the second practice session and said she’s eyeing the top starting spot in “The Great American Race.”
“Everything that we do is to make sure that we do whatever we can to be on the pole,” Patrick said. “That is what we all are shooting for.”
The front row for the Feb. 24 season-opening Daytona 500 will be set in Sunday’s time trials. The rest of the field is set next Thursday after a pair of qualifying races.
Patrick said it would be an accomplishment for her Stewart-Haas Racing team to lock into the field on Sunday.
“I think it would be really nice for all of us to know we were in the race,” she said. “It’s nice to know as a team, but it’s also nice to know for your (sponsors) like GoDaddy and all the other people that are involved in the car. That is who really pays for you to be out there on the track.”
Patrick was nearly a second faster than the other drivers Saturday.
Second fastest in the afternoon session was three-time champion Tony Stewart, her teammate and car co-owner, who turned a lap of 195.363 mph in his Chevrolet. Kyle Busch was third in a Toyota, and he was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray as Chevrolet took four of the top five spots.
Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, was the fastest Ford in sixth.
Patrick came to Daytona with a different car than the one her SHR team tested with in January. That car was fast and had the team encouraged, but crew chief Tony Gibson settled on a different Chevy based on wind tunnel data.
“I think being fastest on the chart, just being fast in general shows everyone else how dead serious Tony Gibson is with his guys and how he wants poles, he wants to give me the fastest car possible,” Patrick said. “He is doing absolutely everything he can and is putting so much hard work into it. I think that just shows his confidence in everyone including myself about what we can do.”
Meanwhile, Juan Pablo Montoya showed some speed in the first session, where he turned the eighth-fastest lap, but his engine blew during the second practice. Chip Ganassi Racing switched to Hendrick Motorsports engines this season, and Montoya was encouraged by their power and teammate McMurray’s speed in the second session.
“We are pretty happy,” he said. “We will change the motor and give it a good go in qualifying.”
SPRINT UNLIMITED: Kevin Harvick won the 75-lap exhibition race by dominating the final two segments.
It was Harvick’s third win in the last five years in the non-points race. He held off challenges from Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle on the final lap to win in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
It’s a strong opener for what’s going to be Harvick’s final year with RCR. He’s already signed on to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
Biffle finished second and Joey Logano was third in his Penske Racing debut. Stewart was fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth.
TWO-TIME Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip will log some extra miles around Daytona International Speedway on Sunday.
Waltrip is one of four NASCAR drivers running in the Daytona Beach Half Marathon, which begins and ends at the famed 2½-mile superspeedway. The 13.1-mile course also goes to the beach and back.
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne and Aric Almirola also are trading in their racing shoes for running shoes.
“Well, I ran my last marathon in 2005, and I ran the Vegas Marathon in 3:55,” said Waltrip, 50. “I was really proud of that. I think I ran both halves in about the same amount of time. I haven’t really run since then. I used this as motivation just to try to get back into better shape.