Patrick would not be making her second career NASCAR Nationwide Series start if she didn’t have a provisional starting spot based on owners points. She was slower in qualifying than two drivers who had to pack up and go home. Six drivers did not make the starting field for today’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
Too bad for Morgan Shepherd and Danny O’Quinn. They were both faster than Patrick in qualifying. Patrick didn’t actually have to use a provisional spot to start the race, but she still got in despite posting one of the slowest times in qualifying.
In Patrick’s defense, Shepherd and O’Quinn were faster than seven other drivers not named Danica Patrick in qualifying.
What might be an even bigger surprise than Patrick’s qualifying effort is Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s rise.
Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray won the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 500. His Earnhardt Ganassi teammate Juan Pablo Montoya will start next to him on the front row.
Perhaps this is the year Earnhardt Ganassi can challenge the traditional powerhouses of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Montoya arrived last year when he made the Chase and was a Cup title contender.
But McMurray has come out of nowhere to become the surprise of the Cup scene in recent weeks.
McMurray was the odd-man out at Roush at the end of the 2009 season. He lost his car when Roush went from a five-car team to four. He was without a team at the end of last year.
He landed with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, the team that gave him his first chance in the Cup Series. McMurray was a substitute driver for the old Chip Ganassi Racing team, filling in for an injured Sterling Marlin. McMurray won his first Cup race in his second start for Ganassi.
But McMurray left Ganassi for Roush in what amounted to a disappointing stint. One of McMurray’s highlights with Roush was winning at Talladega Superspeedway in last year’s Chase race. It was one of only three Cup wins for Roush last year. Despite the low win total for Roush, McMurray said he was encouraged by the direction of the team.
"Well a year ago it was really high because I finished third in the last three races and we qualified in the top five and our cars were really quick,” McMurray said. “Obviously we just didn't have the set-ups toward the end of the year that we needed. Everybody struggled; all five cars were struggling to get speed. But racing is so strange because you can win one week and you can have two or three bad weeks and you just don't ever seem to remember all the good stuff.”
He struggled with Roush, but it was not a successful year for any of the drivers at Roush. Matt Kenseth started out hot, winning the Daytona 500 and the Auto Club 500. He sputtered after that and didn’t make the Chase.
Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle did get into the 12-driver Chase field, but neither driver won a race and neither was really in contention for the Cup championship.
McMurray got into Victory Lane, but it wasn’t enough for him to keep a seat at Roush. Lucky for him, he landed at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing where it looks like he might be on his way to making his first Chase.
“But what I had tried really hard over the last couple of years to do is not base my confidence on performance or results,” McMurray said. “When the day is over, as long as I feel like I did everything I could all weekend long leading up to the race, that there are certain factors that determine the outcome of a race and you can have a flat tire. You can get stuck in the wrong line on a restart. You can have problems in racing that sometimes are out of the driver's control. As long as I feel like I did everything at the end of the day, my confidence is fine.”
Photo: Jamie McMurray does donuts in the Daytona International Speedway tri-oval grass to celebrate his Daytona 500 victory.(Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)