Anyone who is keeping track of NASCAR these days will know that racing legend Mark Martin and open wheel star Danica Patrick will be making starts at Daytona in teams that never raced last season…yet they are locked into the field and will not have to worry about qualifying on time…despite the fact that these new teams had never received any owner points in the previous season. How do they do it?
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Deals of the type that guaranteed Danica Patrick a starting berth in the Daytona 500 will continue, although NASCAR keeps looking for better ways to manage those partnerships and clarify what can be a confusing situation for fans.
Patrick, who will make her Sprint Cup debut in next weekend’s Daytona 500, was locked into the season opener after her Stewart-Haas Racing team came to an agreement with Tommy Baldwin Racing that allowed Patrick to obtain the 2011 points of TBR’s No. 36 car — which finished last season inside the top 35 in owners’ points, and has secure starting spots in the first five events of this year. Because the team giving up the points is required to obtain an ownership share in the car receiving them, as part of the agreement Baldwin became the listed owner of Patrick’s No. 10 car.
A similar deal was struck to allow Mark Martin to secure a guaranteed Daytona 500 berth in the car in which he’s racing a limited schedule at Michael Waltrip Racing. But Patrick’s raised many eyebrows within the media and the fan base because it involved a complete transition from one team to another, from a championship-level SHR program that brought Patrick into NASCAR’s premier series, to a TBR outfit that struggled to keep its cars inside the top 35 a year ago. From NASCAR’s perspective, though, the agreement met criteria for approval.
“We know it’s a challenging one for us,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president for racing operations. “We’re aware of what the fans think. … We’d rather be talking about what’s going on on the race track. The Daytona 500 is a huge thing for the sport, but it has this piece attached to it.”
And that piece can be a tricky one. NASCAR does not allow the selling of points, and O’Donnell said the top 35 issue comes up regularly in preseason meetings with teams. Not all such agreements are approved — O’Donnell said the sanctioning body has rejected potential partnerships involving parties that haven’t built up much equity in the sport, or don’t seem serious enough about the prospect. “There have been people who have faxed in something that just says, ‘Hey, lets go racing.’ You’d be surprised what we see,” he said.
Patrick said the agreement with Baldwin’s team simply provides her with more support. “I think it’s just going to be added information and perspective and more teammates to talk to,” she said. “I think it’s just going to be upside from here on out.”
At this point the only major name not locked into the Daytona 500 is defending race champion Trevor Bayne, who said his Wood Brothers team was confident enough in the No. 21 car that it didn’t feel the need to make a points deal, as it did last season with Richard Petty Motorsports to lock him into the season opener. Bayne’s vehicle was second-fastest in Saturday’s second Sprint Cup practice session, and he can effectively lock himself into the Daytona 500 with a good lap in front-row qualifying Sunday.
“I was making up my own Daytona 500 champion provisional in my head the whole time, so I’m just going to act like I’m locked in here and just try to qualify on time,” Bayne said. “I think our car is going to be fast, so I’m not really that worried about. We qualified in the top 10, I think, at every restrictor plate race last year … and my guys have been working hard, too, so, hopefully, I’d like to be on the front row and just being locked into that starting spot would be cool.”
At this point, NASCAR has no plans to abolish the practice of teams using point deals to secure guaranteed Daytona 500 berths, something that has been common for years. Richard Childress Racing did the same thing last year to lock new addition Paul Menard into the event. And yet, O’Donnell said NASCAR understands why some fans are uncomfortable with the process, and wouldn’t mind finding ways — perhaps a deadline, for one — to make it all a little clearer.
“These deals have come together later and later, which is more and more challenging to explain,” he said. “So do you look at a deadline at the end of the season where we put things in place? Again, that could be challenging for some owners, but that may be something we need to look at to have that be one of the stories going into the offseason, and then as we go into Daytona, we’re talking about racing.”
As far as Patrick’s situation is concerned, O’Donnell said TBR and SHR have taken all the right steps. Patrick will share the No. 10 with David Reutimann, who will pilot the vehicle 26 times, which led many to wonder if there would be a noticeable disparity in the vehicles from one driver to another. But O’Donnell said every chassis the No. 10 team will use is one that has been certified by NASCAR for TBR, and that Patrick can’t use one certified for SHR during her 10 starts. NASCAR is requiring Patrick’s road and pit crews to contain a certain number of TBR personnel, and Baldwin will be listed as crew chief and sit atop the pit box. Greg Zipadelli, SHR’s competition director, was originally slated as Patrick’s Sprint Cup crew chief. He has since been reclassified as race strategist.
Who will actually call Patrick’s races is unclear. “That’s up to the team,” O’Donnell said. What is clear is the fact that NASCAR liked how TBR, the smaller of the two organizations involved in the agreement, would benefit from the deal — one reason the sanctioning body ultimately approved it.
“If you go back into history, there have been a lot of partnerships that have been put together that have allowed teams to get back on their feet a little bit,” O’Donnell said. “This is part of that as well. I would say helping Tommy as well was a part of this. Obviously, we can’t show favoritism. But that’s part of the best interest of the sport, having an owner like Tommy Baldwin be healthy. For us, that’s a good thing.”