With 10 laps left in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Martinsville, Danica Patrick lifted the glass case from the red phone on the corner of her desk and pressed the single red button in the center of the dial.
Milliseconds later, a red light glowed on the smart phone attached to the instrument panel in Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet. Stewart switched his earpiece and microphone to “phone” mode and pressed the “accept” button to take the call.
“Why is the GoDaddy Girl calling me on the hotline?” Stewart asked brusquely. “There’s a race going on here — even if you’re not in it.”
Then Stewart heard the panic in Patrick’s voice.
“What’s wrong with Reutimann’s car — my car?” Patrick asked.
“He’s obviously got a suspension issue,” Stewart replied. “I’ve passed him twice in the last 10 laps.”
“Well, you tell your spotter to tell Reutimann’s spotter to tell Tommy Baldwin to keep the car on the track,” Patrick insisted. “That car — my car — has to stay in the top 35 in owner points. I really, really, really, really don’t want to have to qualify on speed at Darlington.
“There’s no telling what the Lady in Black might do to the lady in green.”
“Relax, Danica,” Stewart said. “There are four more races before Darlington. Reutimann’s got plenty of time to get the car back into the top 35. Besides, I’m kind of busy right now.”
“But, Tony, you told me before the season started that a one-legged chimp could keep a car in the top 35,” Patrick replied. “I’m counting on that. And I expect you to have Dave Blaney’s owner points in your pocket — just in case.”
To my knowledge, that conversation never took place. In fact, it’s simply a facetious way of pointing out that, though Martinsville was supposed to be a Danica-free weekend, Patrick nevertheless had a profound effect on what happened at the .526-mile short track on Sunday.
David Reutimann is a team player, and on Sunday afternoon he was doing what team players do, i.e., whatever it takes to help his organization. In this case, the organization is a hybrid of Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing.
When Reutimann drives the No. 10 Chevrolet, Baldwin fields the car. When Patrick is behind the wheel, Stewart-Haas preps the car. Before the season started, the No. 10 took the owner points Blaney earned last year in Baldwin’s other entry, the No. 36. Those owner points guaranteed Patrick a starting spot in the Daytona 500, her Cup debut.
Now that we’re more than five races into the season, however, current owner points apply, and there’s the rub. With Reutimann and Patrick combining to run a full Cup schedule, the idea was to keep the No. 10 in the top 35 and thereby ensure that Patrick would start all 10 of her scheduled races without the pressure of having to qualify on time.
That’s why Reutimann stayed on track Sunday after breaking what he suspected was a tie rod and slowing to a crawl late in the race. Absent the onus of preserving the exemption for Patrick, Reutimann might well have brought the car to the garage.
But he didn’t. He stayed on track, trying to complete as many laps as possible. When his engine failed, Reutimann came to a stop at the end of the frontstretch, ultimately causing the caution that changed the course of the race.
The caution — along with a wild wreck on the subsequent restart — snatched victory from the Hendrick duo of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and handed an opportunity for the win to Ryan Newman, Stewart’s teammate. Newman took full advantage, beating AJ Allmendinger to the checkered flag in a two-lap shootout.
Reutimann, on the other hand, finished 35th and his car fell to 36th in the owners’ standings, one point behind the No. 83 BK Racing entry driven by Landon Cassill.
The criticism of Reutimann — some of it downright nasty — started almost immediately. But Reutimann’s aborted attempt to finish the race wasn’t a selfish act — just the opposite.
He took one for the team, and now he’s taking the heat for it.
The charitable among us will give Reutimann the benefit of the doubt. And, if she has to, Patrick may be able to use the owner points earned byÂ Blaney this season, if NASCAR approves another swap.
Then again, maybe it’s time to re-examine the sorts of shared owner point arrangements that created the dicey situation in the first place.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.