ARCA driver Natalie Decker will make Daytona debut from pole
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Natalie Decker posted a qualifying surprise Friday at Daytona International Speedway, claiming her first ARCA pole by a mere 0.001 seconds over Zane Smith during preparations for this weekend's season-opening race.
Decker, driving a Toyota for Venturini Motorsports, recorded a lap of 181.859 mph in her debut at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. With her accomplishment, the 20-year-old driver from Eagle River, Wisconsin, joined Erin Crocker and Patty Moise as the only females to earn an ARCA pole at Daytona. Shawna Robinson's ARCA pole came at Michigan.
"I still can't believe it. I am so freaking out," Decker said. "It's like a dream come true."
In the group qualifying session, Decker had three laps in which to make her bid for the No. 1 starting position. Her quickest lap time was 49.489 seconds, while Smith's was 49.490, 181.855 mph, also in a Toyota.
Entering qualifying, Decker said she knew she was fast, but she wasn't sure if she could get the pole.
"But we were in a fast group and my spotter [veteran NASCAR spotter Eddie D'Hondt] talked me through it," Decker said. "I was the third car out [in the group] and my spotter told me to follow the two cars in front of me and he would talk me through the whole thing. I was second after our first lap, but he told me coming back around for my third lap that would change. As we came back around for the third lap, he told me I was on top of the board. It was so crazy."
Decker said D'Hondt had taught her a great deal about superspeedway racing, even sending her a lengthy text about its nuances Thursday night.
"He said to have the mindset of just finishing the race because there will be a lot of wrecks," Decker said. "This is only my eighth ARCA start, so all of it is so new to me. I'm so thankful to have him spotting for me and teaching me all of this."
Crew chief Dave Leiner described Decker as the "real deal" in the post-qualifying media conference.
"She has what it takes to be at the next level, to win races in our series," Leiner said. "Natalie has the drive, the talent and the [financial] backing. She ranks at the top with drivers I have worked with. She listens and she gives good feedback."
Decker said she didn't expect to get much sleep Friday night, but that was status quo for her on the eve of a race.
Leilani Munter, the only other female in the 39-car field and Decker's Venturini Motorsports teammate, qualified fifth at 180.455 mph, 49.874 seconds.
Saturday's Lucas Oil 200 is scheduled to begin at 4:45 p.m.