Commentary

Danica and Kurt looking for history

Updated: May 24, 2014, 3:37 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Tony Gibson was choking down a hot dog in the back of Danica Patrick's hauler when presented with a question that was more loaded than his late afternoon snack.

Who has a better chance of winning Sunday, Patrick in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway or 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch in the Indianapolis 500?

"Oooh, that's a tough one," said Patrick's crew chief as he bit into the hot dog, creating that snap sound you get when they're perfectly prepared. "Either way, I'll piss one of them off."

If you know Gibson, he's really not afraid to tick somebody off.

"I'm going with Danica," he said after a slight pause. "That's what I want to say."

In the lounge of the hauler, Patrick was devouring a bowl of strawberries. Her diet differs significantly from Gibson's, but her opinion on the topic -- at least the way it was presented -- was much the same.

[+] EnlargeDanica Patrick; Tony Gibson
Sean Gardner/NASCAR/Getty ImagesDanica Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson have their car running well in recent weeks.

"Make my case?" she said. "It seems a little foolish to say I'm better than Kurt Busch right now. But if you're asking why I think I will come out better in the 600 than he does the 500, I'd say it's his first race in an Indy car."

Patrick knows a thing or two about the Indy 500. She finished fourth in her first attempt in 2005 and had six top-10s in seven starts in the "Greatest Spectacle In Racing" -- including a career-best third in 2009 -- before moving to NASCAR.

She also knows a thing or two about Busch, her Cup teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing. She knows he's an aggressive driver, and aggressiveness doesn't always pay off at Indianapolis, where, when the back of the car snaps out, it usually doesn't snap back as it sometimes does in a stock car.

Busch found that out Monday when he hit the wall in practice, forcing him to go to a backup car.

Not that Patrick is predicting that will happen Sunday. It's just one of the things that could work against Busch and for her in who has the best chance to win.

"That was kind of the first thing I thought, was that -- as a driver that is comfortable and confident to hang it out a little bit more, pushing the comfort zone -- yeah, it's more likely," she said of making a mistake at Indianapolis.

"I'm pretty methodical. If I don't think I can do it, I don't push it. I didn't have any accidents at Indy in an Indy car in all the years I was there."

There are other reasons to believe Patrick has a better chance at winning the 600 than Busch does in the 500.

Since 1928, only Graham Hill in 1966, Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000 and Helio Castroneves in 2001 have won the Indy 500 in their first attempt. In the past 10 years, the average finish for a rookie in the 500 is 20.2.

The average is 17.9 in the history of the race.

Now consider what other stock car drivers have done in the 500.

Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough never finished better than 10th, and he never tried to run the 500 and 600 on the same day, as Busch will. He finished 28th in his first 500 attempt in 1966. Hall of Famer Bobby Allison ran the 500 twice with a best finish of 25th in 1975.

Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who had an open-wheel background before coming to NASCAR, finished ninth and sixth in the 500 in 1999 and 2001.

The best finish by a stock car driver making the crossover was Donnie Allison. He finished fourth at Indianapolis a week after winning at Charlotte in 1970.

So history isn't in Busch's favor even though his Andretti Autosport Honda is fast -- he qualified 12th. A full-time Cup driver never has won the 500.

You could argue history is against Patrick, as well. Not only has she never won a race in NASCAR but no woman has.

But Patrick is starting fourth in the 600 and is coming off a career-best seventh at Kansas, a 1.5-mile track that is similar to Charlotte. She also is at an all-time high in confidence, having qualified in the top 10 in three consecutive races.

She should be confident the way she shot past Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., to move to third place at Kansas, the way she passed six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on the high side.

"The point of the weekend was I haven't run with those guys [before], but if I have the right stuff to run with them I can do it," Patrick said. "I'm ready. I'm ready to do whatever the car is capable of doing."

That she begins the 600 with a fast car is plus. She had the fastest lap in the second session of knockout qualifying with a lap of 194.595 mph, not far off of Johnson's pole-winning 194.911 mph.

That will allow her to be methodical in NASCAR's longest race, where being methodical and staying out of trouble usually gets good results.

Busch has to focus not only on being methodical at Indy but on being ready for the test he will be put through physically and mentally.

"And in the Indy 500, so much can happen," Patrick said. "As far as the Coke 600 goes, as a team we've been steady, calm and executing better lately.

"If we can hit it right in the beginning, it makes it a lot easier to be methodical and you don't have to throw the kitchen sink at it on the first stop. That's what we were able to do at Kansas."

Although Busch is almost guaranteed a spot in the Chase with a victory at Martinsville, Patrick actually has been more consistent this season. She is 27th in points. He is 28th.

She has six finishes of 22nd or better. He has three.

And Patrick will start 24 spots ahead of Busch in the 600.

"I think he can win no matter where he's racing," Gibson said without hesitating.

Now you're going to argue that Busch is twice the driver Patrick is when it comes to talent. You'd be right. It might be more than twice.

But that's when both are on a level playing field. The field isn't level when you consider Busch will be competing in an Indy car and the race for the first time.

There will be some doubt in his mind in certain situations. Patrick is driving loose and confident.

"No matter what happens, she's doing a good job," Gibson said.

And no, Patrick isn't envious of Busch doing the double. There was a time when she might have been, but now her focus is completely on Cup.

She also has seen how hectic Busch's schedule has been getting between two tracks and how crazy the additional training is to prepare for 1,100 miles in one day.

"I don't sit at home wishing that was me," she said, all but ruling out she'll drive the 500 again.

If you're wondering whether Busch has asked Patrick for advice, not very much. Busch mentioned last month at Richmond that he wanted to know about Indy's traffic and closing rates, but then the two got into a sponsor appearance that quickly ended the discussion.

"The only thing I said [Thursday] when I saw him was ... if there's any car you have to trust your instincts in, it's an Indy car because there is really no coming back from a snap."

Patrick will be pulling for Busch in the 500 along with most of those in the Cup garage. As Earnhardt said, Busch is representing "all of us."

And if he wins, it will be big for motorsports.

But not bigger than it would be if Patrick won the 600. There's no question that would steal the headlines from anything Busch did in Indy.

"That would blow the roof off," former CMS president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said.

The odds don't favor that. Bovada Las Vegas has 300-1 odds on Patrick winning the 600, 25-1 on Busch winning the 500.

Still, if Gibson had an extra $100 to bet?

"I'd put it on her," he said.

Patrick had a thought as she returned to her strawberries. What if Busch won the 500 and she won the 600?

"Can you imagine," she said, her voice squeaking, "if both of those happen?"

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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