Wreck restarts debate on non-Chase drivers rights

Posted Oct. 06, 2010, at 9:56 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 06, 2010, at 11 p.m.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When David Reutimann intentionally wrecked Kyle Busch at Kansas Speedway, the payback for an earlier incident cost Busch significantly in the championship standings.

It also reignited a serious debate about how drivers who aren’t eligible for the title should race drivers who are competing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Contact between Busch and Reutimann caused Reutimann to wreck early in the race, and he sent Busch into the wall as retaliation about 100 laps later. Busch was running seventh at the time, finished 21st and dropped from third to seventh in the Chase standings.

He wondered after the race why Reutimann had to retaliate when Busch has so much on the line.

“For a guy that’s in the Chase, that’s racing for something? He’ll be here next year, he could have wrecked me in any of the first 26 races next year. That would have been fine,” Busch said.

But Reutimann didn’t wait, arguing this week he didn’t have the luxury of being wrecked by Busch at a more convenient time.

“I had a dang good race car, and I didn’t have an opportunity to have a choice of when I wanted to get wrecked or how I wanted to get wrecked,” he said.

The conversation coming out of Kansas has centered around the many elements of Reutimann’s actions. Not too many people are hung up on whether or not he had the right to send a message to Busch. Instead, it’s the day of delivery that’s receiving so much scrutiny.

NASCAR’s championship format puts just 12 drivers in contention for the title over the final 10 races of the season. Only the Chase drivers are racing against the full field, and everybody on the track has their own personal agendas.

There are drivers outside the Chase trying to win races, attract sponsors and line up jobs for next season. Every finishing position is critical, and nobody has a desire to pull over for a Chase driver.

Reutimann’s team owner argued this week that the drivers not racing for the championship have every reason to race as hard as possible.

“There are 43 drivers on the race track each Sunday, and there is no delineation between Chase participants and non-Chase participants when it comes to respect,” Michael Waltrip said.

The issue has been apparent since the opening race of the inaugural 2004 Chase. Robby Gordon and Greg Biffle got into a game of bumper-cars at New Hampshire, and Gordon’s intentional retaliation collected Chase drivers Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield. Their championship chances were ruined before the halfway point of the first Chase race, and the debate over scoring championship contend ers on their own points system has raged ever since.

NASCAR has never moved to adopt a separate points system, but non-Chase drivers have tried to be more careful in the years since.

“When I wasn’t in the Chase, I would just be aware of my surroundings,” said Biffle. “I was cognizant of racing Chase guys and really making sure I didn’t make a mistake and take one out. For personal reasons, I don’t want to be the guy who lost control of my car and hit a guy for a no reason.”

Four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson said he’s never really noticed drivers pulling over and letting him go by without incident just because he’s racing for a title.

“The whole theory on etiquette is you race people how they race you,” Johnson said. “I have to say that as a Chase driver, there are times where I wish guys would cut me some slack and recognize that I’m in the Chase. But then once I climb out of the car and really think about it, they’re trying to do everything they can as well, for their jobs and their sponsors.”

NASCAR has taken a more relaxed stand this season under the “Boys, have at it” policy of allowing drivers to self-police themselves. In years past, Reutimann likely would been have punished by NASCAR immediately after the accident.

But NASCAR took no action Sunday, and series director John Darby indicated there would be no serious follow-up.

“We’ll follow up at the track, but the thing that’s easy to get mixed up is there are 43 drivers on the racetrack, not just 12,” Darby said.

So Busch will move ahead to California this weekend knowing that if not for a dustup with Reutimann, he’d be in much better shape in the Chase. He’s probably blaming Reutimann for that, but Biffle said Chase drivers have their own responsibility to stay out of trouble. Had Busch not spun Reutimann, Biffle said, the payback never would have occurred.

“Be careful,” Biffle said. “Why even put yourself in a position to spin somebody with so much on the line?”

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