Non-Chasers can play spoiler when racing against title contenders
by Mike Neff
Despite the hype to the contrary, the battle for the championship in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup division involves all 43 cars on the race track, and this past weekend that fact was brought to the forefront by David Reutimann and Kyle Busch.
After Busch got into the back of Reutimann in Turns 1 and 2 and Reutimann backed into the wall, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver attempted to retaliate. The action ultimately wrecked Reutimann worse than Busch, but it did damage Busch’s car enough to prevent him from contending for the win with what was a top-5 car. The action has ignited a firestorm of debate among fans about the appropriateness of a driver outside of the Chase damaging the car of someone in the battle for the title and possibly ruining their title hopes.
This conundrum is nothing new. Since the Chase started there has been constant discussion among drivers about how the drivers outside the title hunt should race with the 12 battling for the Cup. The drivers generally hate the situation, but it all comes down to a question of ìwhy do you race?î The drivers at their core are racers, and whenever they get onto the track, they do so to win the race. If they can’t win they at least want to finish as high in the standings as possible. Having to tip-toe around other competitors is no way for a driver to have to act, and in the end the desire to beat the other competitors will overcome the need to give the Chasers a wide berth.
When that situation comes to fruition we’re faced with an occurrence like we had Sunday. Reutimann caused damage to Busch’s car after Busch had caused damage to Reutimann’s car. The end result was Busch took a hit in the Chase standings and Reutimann was relegated to a back-of-the-pack finish and a different image from when he started the race weekend.
NASCAR has painted itself into this box and now is stuck, unless it is willing to completely scrap the entire idea of a Chase and admit that a playoff-style format does not work when you’re dealing with a sport that has 43 competitors on the track. Racing is a different animal from stick and ball sports and the format of a playoff does not lend itself to a sport that has all of the teams involved on the same field of play at the same time.
Imagine how confusing and corrupted the football playoffs would be if all 12 teams that make it to the postseason took to the same field at the same time. Peyton Manning completes a pass to Reggie Wayne who had shaken loose from Darrelle Revis and while he’s running down the field, bumps into Joe Flacco who is scrambling away from Troy Polamalu and fumbles the ball, which is picked up by Arian Foster and run in for a touchdown.
It is an incredibly confusing set of circumstances that would have football fans screaming from the highest hills for Roger Goodell’s head. Yet that is the exact situation that NASCAR continues to force feed the fans on an annual basis as it tries to contend with America’s most popular sport. NASCAR not only force feeds it to the fans, but forces the drivers to race in a box where drivers with no shot at the championship are inches away from cars that have it all on the line while being on the very limit of control. Depending on the driver, one may back completely out of a situation like that and completely avoid the driver who has the title shot, so as not to negatively impact his title hopes. Another may stick his nose in even deeper, knowing the title contender won’t push his luck and take a chance on throwing his title hopes out the window for one spot.
When all is said and done, racing is still racing and there is very real, very human emotion involved in it that eventually overrides the thoughts, concerns and ramifications. If they are bumped or nudged out of the way they return the favor with even more fervor than it was given to them, and the end result can be a tangled mess — or at the very least, some bent sheet metal or truck arms. That is exactly what happened Sunday, and even though Reutimann admitted on Tuesday that he would have a hard time explaining the events to his child, in the heat of the moment there are times when reason and rational thought fly out the window and raw energy takes over.
Step into a room with a handful of NASCAR fans and it is a safe bet you’ll end up with an equal number on one side or the other of the Reutimann/Busch debate. Change the names of the drivers and, while the totals might change slightly, there is still going to be a pretty even split among the pros and cons. Like Busch, there are those who feel Reutimann would have been completely justified in taking him out in any of the 26 races of the ìregular seasonî next year. An equal number are going to feel as though the problem needed to be handled immediately, and it is a bad idea for someone to wait six months before they settle a score.
Driver personalities are also going to play some role in how this altercation is perceived by the fan base. Busch has been known to be a bit on the abrasive side when dealing with the media, and his hatred of losing tends to manifest itself in some less-than-flattering behavior. That, or he’s just a jerk, depending again on the opinion of the fans.
Reutimann, on the other hand, has been known as one of the nicest and most humble guys in the garage. That might have played into his crew chief Rodney Childers’ tirade on the pit stop after the incident when he threatened to quit if Reutimann didn’t start standing up to people who rough him up. The fact that Reutimann finally returned a favor on the track to someone who had wronged him — even if it was during the Chase and only one of the drivers had qualified for title contention — is all part of racing. After all, rubbing is racing, and sometimes people get rubbed too much and they have to rub back a little harder. And that rubbing can ruin someone’s day Ö or their title chances.
Above all, racing is supposed to be about winning and nothing else. NASCAR’s modern era has seemed to drift away from that and the sanctioning body has attempted to get it back with the ìHave at it, boysî policy reaffirmed last winter. Confrontations like Sunday’s happened thousands of times during Cup races back in the day. Fortunately for the drivers involved back then, the races were usually on short tracks where speeds were much lower than they are on the cookie-cutter ovals of today. And those drivers were not racing under the format of a playoff-style points battle; instead, it was about the win and little else.
Whether you are pro or con on the retribution debate, there is no doubt that the fracas on the track Sunday got everyone talking and once again pumped a little life into a sport that so desperately needs it.