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Patrick keeping cool under glare of Daytona pole

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 11:25 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Danica Patrick knows that being in a good position to start a race does not guarantee winning it.

After all, the pole-sitter for Sunday's Daytona 500 is a die-hard Bears fan.

"We'll see how next year goes," said Patrick, who watched her favorite football team begin the 2012 season 7-1, yet miss the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

Patrick became the first female in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history to win the the Daytona 500 pole, posting a speed of 196.434 mph. Sunday in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Janet Guthrie started the 1980 Daytona 18th, and started ninth twice in 1977 at Talladega Superspeedway on Aug. 7 and at Bristol Motor Speedway on Aug. 28.

"It is a cool thing and I enjoyed the day, and so did everybody on the team and everybody (including sponsors) around me," Patrick, 30, said Tuesday in an interview with the Tribune.

"A lot of people ask what this means for women in sports and things like that, especially when there's a record set. From that perspective, I am a couple of decades away from knowing what that means and having a real opinion on it."

Running a full schedule in the demanding 36-race Sprint Cup series this year for the first time, Patrick has no pretense about dominating the competition.

"It is important to keep realistic expectations going," she said. "I know I am a rookie. There are places I haven't been yet, tracks I haven't been on and a lot of experiences I haven't had in this car.

"My goals are always just to improve throughout the year, understanding that you are going to have setbacks along the way … but overall, just improving."

Patrick started 10 events a year ago, averaging a 28th-place finish without any Top 10s. She was 38th in the 2012 500 after a car-wrecking crash on the second lap.

Similar to players and coaches in other sports, Patrick says she is not looking too far ahead.

"We think the same -- one race at a time," she said. "It's a long season, … the start of what lasts basically to the weekend before Thanksgiving. So you have to be able to focus in as you go each week. That's what I am doing."

For now, Patrick is allowing herself to savor the historic moment she and her racing team created.

"My mom sent me an email from someone who attached a really, really old photo of me from Go-Karting," she said. "That's cool, you know. … I just think of it as they made the effort to say 'Congrats' and 'Good job.' It's at moments like this that you realize your reach.

And I also know where I came from (Roscoe, Ill.).

"I love the city of Chicago, so I am excited to know that locals are following me. I think it is a little bit tougher than other sports. In Chicago you have home teams. In racing, there aren't really home teams like that. So it is cool to hear people know I am from the area and that they are following me because of that."

Patrick's personal and public life have been an open book, including a pending divorce from Paul Hospenthal and current romance with competing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Still, she says she is able to concentrate on driving.

"Focus is not something that is achieved overnight; it's something you train yourself to do," she said. "I started racing Go-Karts and going 40 mph to doing four-hour races when you are going 200 mph. So it (has been) a long process for me. That takes time to mature. As a driver, you get in the car and just focus then. Nothing else gets to you. You just feel the car and then see how to go faster."

Patrick says she recognizes the factors that will determine the winner Sunday.

"Probably, No. 1 is luck," she said. "You just don't know how it is going to shake out. You can be in a great car and you're running 15 and there is an accident in front of you and there is nowhere to go. Outside of that, you need to be patient. You need to be fast and you have to have enough experience to know what to do in certain situations."

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