Will Danica Patrick And Tony Stewart Team Up In 2012 Daytona 500?

First of all, let's forget that NASCAR wants us to believe Danica Patrick is driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing.

While she technically may be a TBR driver under the rules, Patrick is really a Stewart-Haas Racing employee who was hired by the team, still wears SHR shirts and will drive for SHR in the Sprint Cup Series next year.

So we can assume, then, that her team owner and teammate Tony Stewart will do whatever he can to help Patrick have a successful Cup debut in Sunday's Daytona 500.

But if it came down to it, I wondered, would Stewart really push Patrick to the win and forego his chance at his first-ever 500 victory?

"Absolutely," Stewart said last week.

That seems hard to believe, doesn't it? But here's how Stewart sees it: It's impossible to predict the circumstances at the end of the race, so there's a scenario in which pushing Patrick to the win in a two-car draft could actually result in the best finish possible for himself.

"The hard part is if you break that thing up and try to make a move to go from second to first, you can easily go from second to eighth by breaking the pair up," he said. "... You analyze it at the end, but if it's close and the pack is right next to you, you do what you have to do to get the best finish. You have to make a calculated decision to get the best result you can."

That line of thinking makes sense if you remember last year's Daytona 500 finish. Carl Edwards was right behind Trevor Bayne and pushed him to the win, but Edwards himself had no other options because other cars were so close.

If the situation with Patrick and Stewart in the Daytona 500 is similar to the end of the Bud Shootout – where Stewart was leading and Kyle Busch pulled out at the last second to pass him at the line – Stewart would undoubtedly ditch Patrick for the win.

Stewart flipped the question around and said it was just as likely Patrick's No. 10 car could be pushing his No. 14 car in the final laps, too. But he emphasized there was no way to plan or make a decision on what to do until the white flag is in the air.

"There is nobody out here going to say, 'I'm not going to try to win the race,' but you have to try and analyze what is going on around you," he said. "You may not even have the option of pulling out to try to win it; you may get freight-trained if you do. You have to make the best educated decision at the time."

When I pressed Stewart further and wondered whether he would really trust a rookie in her first Cup race to determine his Daytona 500 fate, his patience for the line of questioning began to run out.

"If that is your partner, you have to," he said. "... Just because you say that is who you want to run with doesn't mean that is even who you are going to be paired up with at the end.

"You guys are getting way too far ahead and putting the cart before the horse here. There are so many things that have to happen to have those pairings at the end of the day, and you have to analyze the situation when you get to it."

Patrick, though, could win the Daytona 500 in Stewart's mind – whether he is pushing her or not.

"Anything can happen here; it is anybody's ballgame," he said. "She did a really good job in July last year in the Nationwide race when I ran with her. I was really impressed at how smooth she was and how good a job she did in the two-car deal.

"There is no doubt in my mind she has the talent to do it."

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