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Woman at the wheel
Danica Patrick wins the pole for the Daytona 500

 Danica Patrick is the first woman to win the NASCAR pole.
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Date published: 2/19/2013

ON SUNDAY, Danica Patrick proved she has more than beauty and more than brains: She has the athletic ability and the spirit needed to compete with the boys in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series. Traditionalists may grumble, but for racing this is a good thing.

Ms. Patrick won the pole position for the Daytona 500, flying around the track at a screaming 196.434 mph, becoming the first woman to win that coveted prize. And it wasn't just handed to her: She's been racing since she was a kid, first with go-karts as a 10-year-old. When her peers were learning to parallel park at age 16, she moved to England to compete in Formula Ford racing.

She advanced to IndyCars in 2005, and in her rookie year came within a hair's breadth of winning the pole position at the iconic Indianapolis 500. A gust of wind knocked that prize from her hand. Still, she went on to become the only woman to win an IndyCar race and also the woman with the highest place finish (third) in the Indy 500.

In 2011, Ms. Patrick switched over to NASCAR, and speculation about her ability to compete bloomed. Was she just a pretty face, more suitable for selling GoDaddy ads on television than driving? (Did anyone say that about Peyton Manning's TV ads? Or Michael Phelps'?) Did Miss Patrick's relatively low body weight give her an advantage over her heavier male competitors? Was she tough enough to make it in NASCAR's male-dominated world?

On Sunday, the vote was "yes." Ms. Patrick proves that a woman with skills and the right sponsorship, equipment, and teammates can run with the big dogs. Who knows how many new viewers the race will command, just to see her drive? How many NASCAR widows will suddenly show interest in drivers running in circles? How many little girls, watching with their daddies, will suddenly realize that "girls" can drive, too?

On Sunday, runner-up Jeff Gordon quipped, "I can say I was the fastest guy today." Appropriately, his 5-year-old daughter was there and made sure they got a picture with Ms. Patrick. Because maybe one day, Ella Gordon will want to follow in Daddy's tire tracks, around the big oval and into the winner's circle.

Danica Patrick has shown her she might just be able to do that.