Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Reutimann, Patrick NASCAR's pawns in Martinsville mess

When disaster strikes, it's usually not a result of just one bad decision or singular event. It's often a confluence of things coming together at the same time.
And that's what happened late in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville. Of course, everybody wants to blame everybody here. So, today, let's eliminate at least of couple of people from the blame game for what caused a green-white-checkered finish that sabotaged what could have been another classic Martinsville finish between Hendrick Racing teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
So let's aquit the following:
David Reutimann: It seems many were wanting to throw him under the NASCAR hauler, so to speak, after Sunday's race. Reutimann was driving the No. 10 car for Tommy Baldwin Racing, which is affiliated with Stewart-Haas Racing, which is affiliated with Hendrick Racing. The key here is that the top 35 in the Sprint Cup owners points standings are guaranteed starting spots in the next race, which is April 14 at Texas. And the other key here is the the No. 10 car has been riding that fence early in the season. And a third key here is that Danica Patrick is slated to drive that car in nine more races this season. That's a lot of keys to fit into one door. So, in a car, that a had a broken suspension piece, and an engine that was about ready to quit, Reutimann was trying to limp the car home well under race pace speed in the final 15 laps and keep that car in the top 35 in points. He actually did a good job of avoiding traffic when he was out there. It was clear he didn't want to cause an issue in the race. It was also clear he was under trickle-down economic pressure to stay on the track, from sponsors, team owners, etc. He seemed to have accomplished his feat until the engine finally shut down. None of this is directly Reutimann's fault. He's driving part-time for the team, trying to make a good impression for an owner, just trying to do the right thing to survive in the sport. A big chunk of drivers, like Johnson, Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. have either forgotten or don't know what that's like. So, no, not blaming Reutimann here.
Danica Patrick: Yes, it's true, NASCAR had been trying to lure her into the series for probably the last couple of years. She would have loved to have won the Indy 500, which kept her in the open-wheel circuit probably a little longer than NASACAR wanted. Patrick though, finally couldn't resist the guaranteed money, attention and let's face it, the safer cars to drive in. Though she hasn't said this, probably out of respect for her former fellow Indy Car drivers, the fact that she came to NASCAR after the horrible crash that claimed the life of Indy Car star Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas last fall is probably not a coincidence. When it comes down to it Patrick is enough of a sponsor attraction that she's got more money now than she will ever spend. But really, what's the point of having it if there's a real fear you're not going to be around to spend it and enjoy it? Yes, Patrick will be driving the No. 10 for Stewart-Haas Racing at times this season, with her next schedule date May 12 at Darlington. But remember, she's just a driver, not an owner or sponsor telling Reutimann what do. It's not her fault that she is one of the few who can attract sponsors these days. It's part of her job and what happened at Martinsville Sunday was not her fault.
So, really, just who is to blame?
You can look at the top 35 rule. It's a way to guarantee fans they will most likely see their favorite driver when they pay more than a pretty penny for a ticket, merchandise, etc., when they go to a race. Certainly, it played a role in this situation.
You can look at Tommy Baldwin a little here. He's under pressure too to keep that car in the top 35 in points after making an affiliation deal with Stewart-Haas Racing before the season began.
What about Tony Stewart? Well, maybe. He knows Patrick will bring money and sponsors into the team. He's also a driver and the defending champ though, so I can't imagine he was thrilled at seeing the No. 10 limp around trying to stay out of Harm's Way in those final laps.
That brings us to Rick Hendrick. Well, it's always easy to point the finger at Hendrick, one of the most influential figures in the history of the sport. He's an easy target that sometimes gets more blame than he deserves. He's also a sharp businessman who completely understands what having Patrick in the Sprint Cup field does for the sport financially in all types of sales. Kyle Busch once called Hendrick Racing a six-car team (only four cars are allowed by NASCAR rules), saying he included the Stewart-Haas cars of Stewart and Newman. Maybe Patrick belongs in that group, too, now.
And maybe that whole Martinsville mess is symbolic of how NASCAR has compromised itself in the name of safety and quality racing in order to make a dollar.

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