While Formula 1 fans will be watching the testing action this week in Barcelona, over in the United States the NASCAR stock car world is all a-Twitter thanks to the events in qualifying for the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

The 500 is the first round of the NASCAR Sprint Cup and is traditionally the biggest event of the NASCAR year, with a prize fund likely to top $20 million for the first time and a TV audience expected to be at least 30 million and probably more given the excitement that surrounds this year’s event.

The viewing figures are likely to go through the roof as a result of Danica Patrick lapping the two and a half mile superspeedway in 45.817 seconds, at an average speed of 196.434mph in her Stewart Haas Racing Go Daddy Chevrolet. She even had the temerity to knock her team boss Tony Stewart off pole.

The 30-year-old from Wisconsin was the eighth of the 45 drivers to attempt to qualify and then had to wait for nearly two hours as the others tried to knock her off pole. To the delight of the mainstream media her challengers included her recently revealed new boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr, who ended up 12th, just ahead of former Formula 1 star Juan Pablo Montoya.

It was a tense wait with several moments when it looked as though the dream would be shattered, notably when multiple NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon became the only other driver to lap the speedway at over 196mph, but his average was only 196.292mph.

Late in proceedings there was another scare when 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne put in an unexpected 195.976mph to grab the third fastest time.

In the end Patrick was unbeatable and became the first female driver to claim a NASCAR Sprint Cup pole position. It was all the more impressive as this will be Patrick’s first full season in the Cup.

Only Patrick and Gordon are assured of their starting for the 500, while the other grid positions will be decided by the two 150-mile Budweiser Duel qualifying races that will take place on Thursday. The first of these will be for the drivers who qualified in odd-numbered positions (first, third, fifth, seventh etc) and the second for those who ended up in even-numbered places in the list of qualifiers (second, fourth, sixth, eighth etc).

The result of the two races will then decide grid positions from three to 32, with the other qualifiers being the four fastest drivers who did not finish the qualifying races and a mixture of those with automatic starting slots based on performances last year, and the last NASCAR champion who did not qualify for the race. In total there will be 43 cars at the start of the 55th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday.