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Does Danica Patrick Have An Edge In The Daytona 500?

Danica Patrick became the first woman to win the No. 1 starting slot at NASCAR's elite level. But will that spot — and her weight advantage — give her an edge in Sunday's Daytona 500?
Jonathan Ferrey
Getty Images
Danica Patrick became the first woman to win the No. 1 starting slot at NASCAR's elite level. But will that spot — and her weight advantage — give her an edge in Sunday's Daytona 500?
Hear Linda Wertheimer And USA Today Reporter Jeff Gluck Discuss The Daytona 500

It took Danica Patrick 45.817 seconds to circle the track and win the pole position for the Daytona 500. It'll take about four hours to determine who wins the famed race that starts the Sprint Cup season at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.

By taking the No. 1 slot, Patrick made history as the first woman to win a pole in NASCAR's elite division. And she made some people wonder whether the pole position — and her light weight — might give her an advantage.

"People bring it up, but it's not really that much of a difference," USA Today motorsports reporter Jeff Gluck tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer on today's Morning Edition.

Patrick weighs far less than her competitors, in a sport that separates winners and losers by fractions of a second. Her website lists her at 100 pounds — 50 pounds lighter than Jeff Gordon, who will start in the second slot Sunday.

NASCAR accounts for variations in drivers' weight by adding what are essentially blocks of lead to Sprint Cup cars, which are required to weigh at least 3,300 pounds. For every 10 pounds under 180 pounds, an additional 10 pounds of weight is added to the car.

But NASCAR's rules only cover weights down to 140 pounds — a limit that surely must have seemed safer in the sport's more country-fried past.

"As a consequence, the combined weight of Patrick and her No. 10 Chevrolet SS represents a 40-pound advantage over almost every other driver/car combination in the field," writes Reid Spencer at NASCAR.com.

So, why isn't that an advantage? As ESPN analyst Andy Petree, a former crew chief, tells Spencer, the 40-pound difference doesn't necessarily translate into an edge at a 2.5-mile superspeedway like Daytona, except in one area: acceleration.

"Her car might get up to speed a little quicker, but once it gets there, it's not going to be any faster," Petree says. "I don't see that being an advantage (in the Daytona 500)."

NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton agrees.

"When you are trying to race anything, there is a balance between the weight you need and whether it's a balance between left and right-side weight or overall weight," he tells ThatsRacin.com. "When you go to places like Daytona, it probably means very little."

He added that the weight difference might mean more at short tracks.

Driver Matt Kenseth, who will start 12th on Sunday, tells Spencer he doesn't think Patrick's weight is a big deal — "but," he added, "yes, if she keeps running that fast, then I think she should have to add a bunch of weight and mount it on the roof."

As for Patrick's other advantage Sunday — starting at the head of the pack — it's worth noting that, as they say on TV, past performance does not guarantee future results.

"The last time a pole-winner actually won the race was 2000," Gluck tells Linda, citing the victory by Dale Jarrett. "And it's only been done twice since they started restricting the engines and putting them in a pack."

Those restrictions were made for safety reasons, part of NASCAR's plan to keep race cars from reaching such high speeds that they could endanger spectators in the stands if drivers lose control.

That also means viewers of Sunday's race should expect to see large packs of cars moving around the track together, at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour. The tendency to clump together makes it hard for one driver to break away — and it also means that a slight error, or an impatient nudge, can spark an eight-car pileup that redraws the leader board.

So, if Patrick is going to win, she'll need to find the same blend of speed, talent, and luck that all drivers look for on race day.

There are signs that Patrick's driving style is well-suited for Daytona International Speedway — in addition to this year's top spot, she won the pole for a 2012 Nationwide Series race at the track.

Like her competitors, Patrick will be driving NASCAR's new "Gen 6" car for the first time under real racing conditions. She has said the car has more grip, reminding her of her days in IndyCar.

But on Sunday, Patrick might need to rely on something else: her ability to avoid crashes, a skill that allowed her to complete a record 50 consecutive races in the IndyCar series.

"It's essentially a lottery here at Daytona," Gluck says of Patrick's chances. "Although she's going to start up front, the chance that she'll finish there is anybody's guess."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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