Danica Patrick won the pole position for next week’s Daytona 500 on Sunday, posting the fastest time among 45 competitors. She was not only the first woman to win the pole for the Daytona 500, but for any race in NASCAR’s premier division. Last year she took the Daytona pole in the Nationwide division, one step from the top.

Patrick, who first achieved success in open-wheel racing, was also the first woman to lead a lap at the Indianapolis 500, and finished as high as third in that esteemed event. She is also the only woman to win a major open-wheel race, accomplishing that feat at an event in Japan in 2008.

In a press conference, Patrick said “I was brought up to be the fastest driver — not the fastest girl …”

I like that. Every sign of growing equality or opportunity among men and women is welcome. Patrick may be a mixed bag for some women’s rights advocates because she’s not only a racer, but racy: a powerhouse combination of fierce competitor and attractive young woman who’s not above exploiting her sexuality in sometimes-provocative commercials for car sponsor GoDaddy.com.

Chances are slim that Patrick will win the Daytona 500 this year — she’s struggled to adapt to the heavier NASCAR vehicles while driving a very part-time schedule the past couple of years, and her highest finish in 10 Cup races has been 17th — but she’s off to a good start, and her popularity could be the salvation of NASCAR, which has suffered lower TV ratings lately and has always struggled to attract women viewers.

In any case, she’s received a much warmer reception than the pioneering Janet Guthrie, the first woman to win a starting spot in the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. She finished ninth at Daytona in 1978 and won grudging respect, but never became really popular. Some drivers complained that women didn’t belong on the race track. 

Whether they’re behind the wheel or behind the pulpit, seeing women succeed in roles once the exclusive province of men makes me happy. Progress has been slow, but Patrick is all about speed: maybe her notoriety will help pave the way for women in every profession to join her in the fast lane.

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