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CONCORD, N.C. -- Tony Stewart was 10 questions into his media session at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday when the subject of Danica Patrick came up.
"You can't ask me anything about Danica," Stewart said. "It doesn't have anything to do with what I'm doing here today. If you have something to ask me about what we're doing here today, feel free. And I'll stay here as long as you want. Do you have anything else?"
Uh, well, no.
"OK," Stewart said as he disappeared into his hauler.
The two-time Sprint Cup champion may be able to run away from questions about Patrick now, but it's doubtful he'll be able to do that a year from now. Whether the IndyCar Series star joins his organization, as some anticipate, or another, she'll definitely be the topic of conversation before next year's Coca-Cola 600.
She can't help but be.
|Danica Patrick took center stage with the media on Sunday after making the field for the May 29 Indianapolis 500.|
Regardless of whether Patrick is in a Nationwide Series car on Memorial Day weekend of 2012 or a Sprint Cup car, it's expected she won't be in the Indianapolis 500 unless there is some bizarre clause in her contract that allows it.
Her absence will strip the 500 of one of the few remaining reasons to tune in to what once was the greatest show in motorsports.
But will it help put NASCAR's longest race of the year further ahead of the Indianapolis 500 as television ratings suggest? (The 600 has outdrawn the 500 in nine of the past 10 years, with 2009 when the Charlotte race was moved to Monday because of rain the lone exception.)
Several drivers who will compete in Sunday's 600 were posed that question. The reviews were mixed.
"Not for me," Martin Truex Jr. said when asked if Patrick's presence would add to the show in Charlotte. "That would be great for the fans, but I could give a damn less. I'm not worried about exposure. I'm worried about going fast."
Said Brian Vickers: "Don't get me wrong. Nothing against her. She's not the reason I'm going to watch a race. I hope she does well in our sport. Having a successful female in our sport would be great for everyone. But it's not going to make me want to watch any more."
David Reutimann said he wouldn't tune into any race just to watch Patrick, but admitted "she's certainly got a pretty good following."
"She brings a certain something to every event she comes," he said. "I'm sure they'll [Indy] miss her."
Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon agreed.
"Obviously, anywhere that Danica races she brings attention and a lot of positives to the sport that she's in," he said. "Obviously, Indy gets a good draw from that. When she's in NASCAR, I feel we gain a nice draw from that.
"Wherever she's at it's going to be that way."
There are plenty of reasons the 600 already is watched more than the 500 without Patrick. For one, the drivers are a lot more popular. In the recent Forbes magazine list of the most influential athletes in sports, five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson topped the list. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third and Gordon was eighth.
There was no mention of Patrick or any other IndyCar driver in the list of most influential athletes. But Patrick was listed 96th on Forbes' list of the 100 most influential athletes, so bringing that to NASCAR's side should help increase the interest gap.
Some will tell you the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 is the bigger event this weekend. The only sound argument for saying the 500 is bigger is the anniversary, but a number doesn't make it bigger or better.
|Danica Patrick's foray into NASCAR has not been without a few bumps in the road.|
If you want big, check out the world's largest HD screen on the backstretch of CMS. Fans sitting in the frontstretch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway may have a better chance of seeing the screen that NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton clearly saw from an airplane more than 20 miles away than they do of seeing the backstretch at Indy.
And c'mon. Who would you rather hear sing on Sunday, 80-year-old Jim Nabors or Darius Rucker? Nothing against Nabors' famous rendition of "Back Home Again in Indiana," but the man we all know as Gomer Pyle is from Alabama. Back home to him is the backwoods of NASCAR country.
There may not be a better national anthem singer than Rucker.
Indianapolis' idea of controversy is Michael Andretti striking a deal with A.J. Foyt for Ryan Hunter-Reay to replace Bruno Junqueira. Do you think Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress would ever do that? Hardly.
Controversy is Kyle Busch driving 128 mph in a 45-mph zone, or Kevin Harvick taking swings at Busch on pit road after a heated exchange on the track.
If IndyCar racing, or any other form of racing, is so good, why is former Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen in a Nationwide Series car this weekend? Why is Patrick working on a deal to move into stock cars full time in 2012?
The same reason Juan Pablo Montoya moved to NASCAR. Because it is the best racing in the world, where you actually can pass on the track and rub fenders.
You might see more passing and strategy in Sunday's 600 than in the past 10 Indianapolis 500s combined. You might even get to see a backflip if points leader Carl Edwards is able to follow up on his victory in the All-Star Race and give Roush Fenway Racing its first points victory at CMS in nine years.
"That's a stat I didn't know," Edwards said. "I'd say we've got a really good opportunity to end that streak."
At worst, as Southern 500 champion Smith suggested, you'll have an "extra 100 miles to drink beer."
At Indy, the big deal is to drink milk.
And look at all the songs about how pretty Southern girls are compared to those from the Midwest. Charlotte has that going for it even without Patrick.
"Cup racing is way more exciting than Indy cars," Truex said. "I do like the Indy 500 for the racing, but it's not nearly the show it is here."
Next year, Patrick likely will be a part of that show.
Maybe then Stewart will answer a few questions about her.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.