NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Side By Side: Does A Pair Of Drivers Dating Matter?

_Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question… feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!_

*This Week’s Question: Does a pair of drivers dating one another actually matter?*
_Who’s right? You decide!_

Marc Lemay, Frontstretch Webmaster: When It’s Danica, It Matters

It’s bigger than just “dating a fellow driver” when it comes to Danica Patrick. Yes, I am going to make an example of Danica, simply because she is, for better or worse, the torchbearer for future women coming into NASCAR. We’ve ogled her in the sexy GoDaddy commercials. We were thoroughly impressed by her talents in Indy, and hoped she would (and could) bring that talent to stock cars. (The media was in on it, too.)

So Ms. Patrick remains front and center, even when it’s become too much. Every week, “Danica-watch” caused even fans who want her to succeed, to reach their limits when, with the mere mention of her name, even optimists would tune out the next lap and a half. In the face of those struggles, her fellow drivers gave her the benefit of the doubt, giving her the “she’s just one of the boys” lines as she tried to break into the ranks last season. But now… there’s a new difference making it harder for them to ignore. This issue falls under the same rules for us “nine to fivers” – office romances are bad news. Danica’s and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s offices just happen to be behind the wheel.

I don’t question either driver wanting to drive the doors off their respective cars, especially since both are technically rookies in the Sprint Cup Series this year. I might consider things a bit different if they both drove for the same team. At least if they were on the same team, you might understand one giving the edge to the other, be it for race or point advantage. But, there will always be doubts in race fans’ minds if one of them doesn’t appear to be driving hard against the other in an event. You hope that won’t happen, but unfortunately, it will.

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These two race car drivers happen to be a couple…

NASCAR has always had family rivalries. The Busch and Unser brothers come to mind. The Labontes, Pettys, Wallaces, Bodines, and Andrettis rank up there too. I’m sure there was even a bit of rivalry between Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and Junior. But that was different. Fathers and sons. Brothers who have been bumping each other since they were old enough to touch a gas pedal. Even cousins don’t make you bat an eyelash.

So why is boyfriend/girlfriend different? I’ll say it: it’s because Danica’s a woman.

It flies in the face of everything I believe. Being the father of a daughter who I’ve taught to be strong-willed and equal to her male counterparts, my mind screams I shouldn’t think this way. Maybe it’s because I continue to hope that Danica becomes just “one of the boys” and not just the “flavor of the month.” Dating a fellow driver, a fellow competitor, is without a doubt going to make that a tougher accomplishment for her in her first full-time season in Sprint Cup.

Forget the jokes about bump drafting and about Ricky getting the cold shoulder in the bedroom if he turns her into the wall. I want, no, I _really_ want Danica to be taken seriously as a driver. Her actions will help or hinder future females trying to come into an industry dominated by men.

If she were dating anyone else, outside of motorsports, I wouldn’t care one iota about her personal life. Neither would most race fans. The fact that she was getting a divorce meant zero to me. Some would contend that a difficult marriage could have played into her less-than-stellar driving last season. If that were the case, then it’s time to move on for her, both personally and professionally. Combine that with being the newbie on the circuit and it could explain why last season was, at the very least, a bit disappointing for Ms. Patrick.

But will this decision make things any better? The fact that the coupling has already been a distraction of sorts for both drivers, simply because of the media buzz isn’t something that’s going to disappear after the first few races. It will continue long after the green flag flies in Daytona, likely as long as the two stay together. For both, it may be not only a test of their relationship, but also their careers in NASCAR as well.

Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: What’s Next? Drivers Can’t Be Friends?

Of course it doesn’t matter! As long as the two drivers don’t let their relationship affect how they run a race, who cares if they’re dating? Elton Sawyer and Patty Moise raced against each other in the Busch Series as a married couple, and I don’t remember anyone talking about it at all, let alone calling it into question.

The exception, of course, is if the couple lets a squabble boil over on the racetrack and take each other out, collecting another driver in the process, or if one intentionally wrecks someone to help the other. But the chances of either one of these things happening is pretty small — when you’re talking about the upper levels of a sport, you are talking professionals, period. They got to where they are by doing their jobs. Why would that change?

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…and these two have been friends since they were 15. Does either relationship matter on the racetrack?

But what if — the horror — one of the drivers helps the other in the draft? What if Danica Patrick is faced with the choice of pushing either current flame Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. or, say, David Ragan to a Daytona 500, or any other restrictor plate checkered flag? If she chose to push Stenhouse across the line, would it somehow taint that victory?

Of course not!

Drivers have to make on-track decisions all the time that can help or hurt another driver. Now, if Patrick pushed Stenhouse over Tony Stewart or Ryan Newman, she could be crossing a different line, because generally drivers will help a teammate. But otherwise? What’s next, saying that drivers who are close friends shouldn’t be able to race each other?

“The 2006 Daytona 500”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAvaXTjyawY is the perfect example. With Jimmie Johnson leading Ryan Newman on a green-white-checkered run, it is the third-place driver, Casey Mears, who will ultimately decide the winner. When Newman made his move to the outside, Mears stuck with Johnson — his best friend since the two drivers were teenagers. Nobody cried foul. Mears wasn’t a teammate of either Johnson or Newman, so it wasn’t as if he chose his friend over being a team player.

And you know what? There was nothing wrong with Mears choosing his friend over another competitor in that situation. And there would be nothing wrong with it should it happen between a couple instead of a pair of old friends. Johnson and Mears, of course are hardly the only pair of buddies out there in any given race; NASCAR is a small, intimate garage area filled with close relationships. Danica Patrick’s car owner, Tony Stewart, for example is tight with Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick. And that’s to say nothing about the sets of brothers who have raced or are racing in the same series; Kenny Wallace once pushed Hall of Famer Rusty to a Budweiser Shootout win. Should he have gone with someone else just to avoid a few fans grumbling about nepotism?

Again, if helping a friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend meant stiffing a teammate, that might be dirty pool. But it would be up to the team owner and nobody else to decide if and by how much that driver was out of line. And that’s how it should be. If one person in a relationship were to do something on the racetrack to help or hurt the other, it would be up to the team owner to decide what to do about it. It’s not up to anyone else to be judge or jury.

So does it matter that two competitors in the same series are dating or even married? No… not anymore than it matters if two competitors are brothers or childhood friends. As long as they act like the professionals they are (and they will), there is no reason to even think twice about it. And if they don’t… that’s why they have owners, other drivers who _will_ police it if it has an effect. Heck, if it gets really out of hand, the sanctioning body would probably step in on this one.

But for the rest of us, the fact that two drivers are a couple is nothing more than an amusing footnote.

*Connect with Amy!*
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“Contact Amy Henderson”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14352/

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