Thomas Bowles · Tuesday April 3, 2012
As the sun rises over NASCAR’s first “off week,” David Reutimann remains shrouded in darkness after Martinsville. The Tommy Baldwin Racing driver, whose broken steering linkage caused a caution with less than three laps to go, committed the “cardinal sin” of any backmarker: changed the course of a race’s outcome. By stopping on the track, after several attempts to continue racing with a clearly crippled Chevrolet, the insistence to “keep going,” trying to limp to the finish caused major consequences. The yellow flag that followed set up a wild restart which robbed the day’s two dominant cars, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, of the victory while turning the green-white-checkered finish into a short track Demolition Derby.
After the race, listening to driver quotes you’d think the garage was ready to march on Reutimann’s hauler, brand the poor man with a Scarlet Letter and be done with it. “I just don’t know what the No. 10 was thinking,” said Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “Hell, how many laps down are you? Get out of the race.” Added Brad Keselowski: “I think we’re all really, really frustrated with that guy.” Some have even indicated Baldwin should fire his driver, whose car now sits outside the top 35 in owner points and must qualify on speed at the April 14th race in Texas.
But in the midst of the Reutimann Riot, everyone needs to stop and ask himself or herself a simple question: Why? Why was the No. 10 chugging to the finish line? Simple: because for this car, every lap counted. Every position made a difference due to NASCAR’s top-35 rule, which locks in 35 of 43 spots on the grid prior to each race based on where they are in owner points. If Reutimann had finished the event, he would have vaulted over teammate Dave Blaney and earned one extra point, the difference between 35th and 36th. That would have let the Baldwin/Reutimann pair breathe easy instead of sweating out Texas with one of the larger entry lists expected this season.
Now, Danica Patrick also drives the “No. 10 car,” with her equipment coming from Stewart-Haas Racing as part of a ten-race, limited schedule. Some have blamed Patrick’s presence in the car for the whole mess, “forcing” this team to stay out but the aggression really comes down to Baldwin and Reutimann – nothing more. What, you really think Patrick is ordering from the pit box for this team to keep going so she can be “locked into” the field at Darlington on May 12th? How many cars are attempting that race… 44? People differ on the degree of her talent, but the woman has had no problems running a NASCAR stock car for a lap. I think chances are high, in top-tier equipment she can beat one car to make the field if necessary.
No, the more likely scenario, if this Baldwin/Reutimann pairing continues to struggle is that Stewart-Haas ownership no longer sees the benefit of providing financial support in this “co-op” effort to keep a car number inside the top 35. If Ms. Patrick has to qualify on speed anyways, every time she hops in their car what’s the point? It’s a bad business decision; they’re wasting money. So Stewart could pull the plug, Baldwin would lose cash and then be forced to either scale back to one car or start and park the second team he’s tried for years to fully establish. So yeah, of course Reutimann and Baldwin are going to push it for some extra laps, nearly wrecking the field with a broken steering linkage; they’re fighting for survival. Don’t blame them for that.
The irony of the situation is Reutimann represents the aggression NASCAR wants, in the wrong place. With driver conservatism all the rage this season, most teams recognizing that if they can’t win, “hanging out” inside the top 20 in points is just fine until midsummer processional parades like Fontana are the norm and not the exception. Even at Martinsville, several who attended told me it was good, not great from the stands; by far, Sunday was the “least good” (hard to have a bad race at Martinsville) race they’d seen there until the fateful caution flag. Contact, not to be confused with crashes, was minimized at times because drivers felt no sense of urgency to move through the field. Running 10th? Don’t have a winning car? Alright, it’s lap 200, I’m just going to stay here and ride for 200 laps. And if I finish 10th? Great. That’s plenty of points to propel me into the playoff chase. Turns out “rubbing is racin’” only if drivers are given a reason to turn up the wick.
In fact, only in the case of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, whose battle for the victory was shaping up to be a beauty did we have the aggression NASCAR fans craved down the stretch. But there was a sense of urgency in both cases. For Johnson, he’s eager to prove that Daytona pre-race inspection was a fluke, faulty decisions firing up the five-time champ as he searches for a sixth. Meanwhile, Gordon sits 21st in points, his team looking more like the Bad News Bears lately instead of the once-flagship car that captured four championships for HMS. A win, which would also have been Hendrick’s 200th rights the ship and relaxes the DuPont Chevy crew. It also likely earns him a “wild card” if the team can just sneak inside the points top 20 (much easier than climbing all the way up to 10th).
You could argue Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who finished third also had his own incentive: a winless streak approaching four years. But for the rest, points and not pushing it were on the agenda until Reutimann’s caution caused the cocaine-style drug any race car driver, at that level just can’t ignore: a green-white-checkered finish, with the leaders in front of them on old tires. All of a sudden, ten drivers smelled victory and were “woken up” from processional slumber; the aggression that followed was a natural reaction no “race for points” speech could stop. The resulting crash on the restart, which killed Johnson and Gordon’s chances, was only surprising because of the upset winner it produced.
In many ways, NASCAR was dealt a huge favor by the whole Reutimann mess. It got a surprise victor, Ryan Newman, along with a phenomenal finish that will be talked about long into the “off week.” Johnson remains winless, keeping the team actually pushing for a “breathe easy” Chase victory before choosing to enter “regular season testing mode.” Ditto for Gordon, whose problems aren’t as serious as it looks on paper but must push for a win in the next month or two to keep from building stress. Considering how many superstars are kicking back, content to just ride around during races right now the sport needs all the top-level aggression it can get.
It’s funny what a difference a week makes. In many ways, if Reutimann had stopped on Lap 120 of the race at Fontana, just before the rains NASCAR and drivers would have been applauding him; perhaps an actual competition rather than a “let’s just get out of here” mentality would have broken out. Circumstances, in this case dictated the anger; but doesn’t random luck change the course of races all the time? Should people no longer stretch it on fuel mileage because of the fear of running out, then stopping on the track with two laps left to create a green-white-checkered finish? That’s just silly.
No, the real trick for NASCAR is twofold. One: fix the growing financial malfunctioning within its Sprint Cup world so that teams like Baldwin don’t have to play desperate, limping around with a broken car because a partnership with a rich team is the only thing keeping them alive. Two: find a way to filter Reutimann’s spirit, running hard to finish every lap into the rest of the 43-car grid. Maybe it’s a large monetary bonus for halfway. Maybe it’s redistributing the purse so there’s plenty more cash earned for top-5 finishes. Or you could even restructure how points are distributed in-race.
The solution, like many in modern-day NASCAR remains elusive. But I do know this much: David Reutimann shouldn’t be lynched for a problem he didn’t create.
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