Danica Patrick keeps pace in qualifying

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Crew chief Greg Zipadelli leaned into the window of the No. 10 Chevrolet, gave his driver a few last-second instructions and -- with a light chirp of the tires -- Danica Patrick was off on her first qualifying lap in a Sprint Cup car.

"I hope it's something like Tiger Woods, where we get more and more people to watch the sport," said Gene Haas, the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, as he watched his driver's big day.

OK, this wasn't Woods walking down the 18th fairway of Augusta National in 1997 en route to becoming the first black golfer to win the Masters.

Patrick qualifying 29th wasn't close to having historical significance. Unless she wins the Feb. 26 Daytona 500 she won't be the first female to do anything here.

But that wasn't Haas' point. The attention Patrick brings to NASCAR is similar to the attention Woods brought to the PGA Tour.

The difference is Woods didn't take long to establish himself as the best golfer in the world.

Patrick? Uh, well ...

"Obviously, Tiger was a man in a man's sport," Haas said. "She's a woman in a man's sport. If she can just hold her own, I'll be impressed."

Patrick held her own in qualifying. She was faster than two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch and perennial Chase contender Denny Hamlin, to name a few.

The real test will come during Thursday's qualifying races and the 500, where for the first time her skills will be matched to the max against the best drivers in the sport.

She doesn't lack for confidence, though. When discussing her observations of Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout wreck fest, which she didn't compete in, the former IndyCar star went straight to Kyle Busch's slingshot move around Tony Stewart for the win.

"Trust me, I'll be studying that last pass at the end with Tony and Kyle to see when the perfect time is to do that," Patrick said.

If Patrick is in position to win she will make history. Otherwise, focusing on how to survive the return of pack racing might be her order of the day.

"You've got to do everything you can to keep from causing [a big wreck]," veteran Jeff Burton said. "If you're a younger driver, that needs to be your mission. By the way, if you're an old driver, that needs to be your strategy, too."

Burton can only imagine what it must have been like for Patrick to watch the Shootout in which 22 of the 23 cars were damaged and think ahead to her first Cup race.

"I would have stopped [watching]," he said with a laugh. "I would have closed my eyes and said, 'Aieeeeee, don't watch that.' "

If Patrick was nervous about what she saw, she didn't show it on Sunday. Maybe it's because she's been under the giant spotlight for so long, but she was relaxed to the point of being flip.

When asked about her qualifying lap, she quipped, "I'm curious, what do other drivers say when you ask them, 'Talk about your run?' " Patrick said with a smiled.

She had us there. Qualifying at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway is so anti-climatic that Dale Earnhardt Jr. once said his grandmother could do it.

"Yep, I've pretty much just got to hit my shifts," Patrick said. "I did that. It felt better than it did in practice, so I thought, 'Sure, this is a good sign.'

"As a driver you just try to go through the gears smooth and just try to be smooth on the track."

This is just a major change in our sport. If she can just stay with the guys, it will be a monumental achievement.

-- Gene Haas on Danica Patrick

Patrick was smooth on and off the track, as she has been since arriving at Daytona. When a legion of questions came at her all at once, she stopped everyone and said, "It's all right, I'll get to all of you."

She paused, then added, "I feel like an ass when I pick one and not anyone else. I should pick the most quiet ones, shouldn't I?"

Later, when a large cheer came from the crowd as Patrick explained the difference between qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, she stopped and said with almost a giggle, "Was that Dale?"

No, it wasn't Nationwide Series boss Earnhardt. It was four-time champion Jeff Gordon pulling up after his qualifying run.

Patrick then returned to her explanation, saying, "Since it's easier [to qualify at Daytona] it's a little less nerve-racking because there is a little less to worry about as a driver. To say I wasn't nervous at all is a lie. Of course I was a little bit. I want to do a good job.

"As far as nerves go it was less nerve-racking, but there was no lack of photographers."

Patrick doesn't go anywhere at Daytona without a handful of photographers stalking her. It's been that way since she made her stock car debut in the 2010 ARCA race here.

Because SHR formed a technical alliance with Tommy Baldwin Racing to guarantee her a spot in the 500, those cameras will be around Patrick through the Daytona 500. Without that guarantee Patrick would be really nervous about having to race her way into the field on Thursday.

Qualifying 29th wasn't good enough to be locked in on speed.

Thursday still will be big, though.

"Big time. Big time," Patrick said. "It's going to be about getting some rapport with some of the drivers I haven't raced with yet, getting a feel to how the pack running is going to go.

"If anything, I'm probably more nervous now because it's going to be time to get running with everybody else. The running so far has been the easy part."

Yes, the easy part is over for Patrick. From Wednesday's draft practice to Thursday's qualifying races to Sunday's 500, the spotlight on her will become even brighter.

It won't be Tiger-like. Having been at the '97 Masters, where you had to skip every other hole to get close to the green around the massive crowds that followed Woods, it won't be close.

But this is a big moment for NASCAR, a time when more eyes than normal are on the sport because of Patrick.

"This is just a major change in our sport," Haas said. "If she can just stay with the guys, it will be a monumental achievement."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.