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|Sprint Cup newcomer Danica Patrick is guaranteed a spot in the Dayton 500 thanks to a points exchange between Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing.|
CONCORD, N.C. -- Competition 101 is in session at the NASCAR Research and Development Center. Professors John Darby and Robin Pemberton are leading Monday's two-hour class, which has a heavy slant on electronic fuel injection.
A lot is learned, from how NASCAR hopes to prevent teams from cheating with EFI technology to how the initial secret test of the 2013 car last week was nothing but positive.
As class for the media nears an end, professor Pemberton, also NASCAR's vice president of competition, jokingly is asked if Danica Patrick will win the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.
"Absolutely," replies Pemberton, playing along with the joke. "There's one thing we know, everybody has the same opportunity."
This is where the mood of class turns. It is suggested that Patrick has a better opportunity because NASCAR approved a unique alliance between Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing that guarantees the former IndyCar driver a spot in the Great American Race.
In case you missed it, Patrick's No. 10 Sprint Cup car is guaranteed a spot in the 500 because the No. 36 owner's points from Dave Blaney's Tommy Baldwin Racing car were transferred to it. The transfer of points happens all the time, but usually for one car to run under the umbrella of one organization.
Not in this case, or at least that is the perception. SHR employee Patrick will enter 10 Cup races with SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli as her crew chief, with engines and chassis coming from Hendrick Motorsports, which supplies SHR's equipment, yet she technically will be driving for Tommy Baldwin.
|Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, had his hands full trying to explain the points-swapping scenario that guaranteed Danica Patrick a starting spot in the Daytona 500.|
TBR driver David Reutimann will drive the remaining 26 races in the No. 10 with engines from Earnhardt Childress Racing, which supplies TBR, but he'll also get technical and people support from SHR.
It appears that two organizations are supporting one car, even though owner Baldwin gets the paycheck from what both drivers earn.
Professor Pemberton tries to explain.
"Let me ask you this," he says. "If Ryan Newman went to work for Tommy Baldwin, and Tony Stewart hired Dario Franchitti to drive the 39 that was 10th in points [in 2011], wouldn't he be locked in?"
This is when classmates get a bit unruly, explaining it's not the same thing because Franchitti would be driving a SHR car all year for SHR, that it's not two teams and two drivers sharing one car.
Pemberton argues that it's no different than Aric Almirola driving for Richard Petty Motorsports this year with the points earned by AJ Allmendinger last year, no different than Kyle Petty driving the No. 43 for the 1981 opener while his father, Richard, piloted the 42.
Again, it is argued that those are examples of one team and not two.
In Pemberton's defense, this shouldn't be a battle for him or series director Darby, who is laying low at this point. That honor belongs to professor Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's vice president of racing operations, who missed class while returning from Sunday's Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
That leads to some extracurricular phone research on Tuesday.
O'Donnell explains that this really is one team with two different drivers, that Baldwin gets all the prize money, that all the chassis for all the races will be certified and registered through TBR. He points out that there has to be a certain number of common crew members with both drivers from race to race.
He says the deal meets all the proper criteria and wasn't stamped by NASCAR just to get Patrick in the race, although that is a win-win for everybody.
"What gets lost in this is it's also a way to help Tommy Baldwin with his team and enables them to run all year," O'Donnell says. "But, yes, it's a little bit different."
Points swapping is a necessary evil in NASCAR. It allows owners to guarantee that a sponsor or driver will not be left out of the party. It happens more than you think.
Defending Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne entered last year's race with the owner's points earned by Elliott Sadler in the No. 19 at RPM. Technically, Petty was listed as the car owner even though it belonged to the Wood Brothers, which gets is engines and chassis from Roush Fenway Racing.
Bayne, by the way, isn't guaranteed a spot in this year's 500 -- yet.
We've heard loud and clear from fans. This is certainly not their favorite topic.” -- NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell
on points swapping
The list of swaps goes on and on. Owners do it to protect their sponsors. Drivers don't seem to mind, understanding what's best for the owners and sponsors is best for them.
It is, as Kasey Kahne says, "a big deal" to be in the 500. And he's not offended he's racing against drivers who didn't earn their way into the field.
"However you want to make sure you're in the race is fine with me," he says.
Since there is no franchising in NASCAR -- and thus no franchising fee set by the league -- the points are the only thing of real value to owners. Without swaps, a team simply would lose all it invested when shrinking from four to two teams as RPM did last season. That's not fair, either.
And is swapping points really worse than the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox buying the best talent to get to the World Series?
NASCAR's problem is perception. The Yankees and Red Sox still have to earn their way into the World Series. Patrick doesn't have to earn anything to get into the Daytona 500.
O'Donnell understands this is a sore spot for fans. Just as NASCAR's research shows more than 80 percent of fans don't like two-car dancing at Daytona, with more than 40 percent hating it, research shows fans don't like points swapping.
"We've heard loud and clear from fans," O'Donnell says. "This is certainly not their favorite topic."
Before next season, O'Donnell says, NASCAR will look into possibly changing the rule -- that the top 35 teams from last season are guaranteed a spot in the first five races -- that created this mess. He admits the swapping has "gotten more and more difficult to police."
There's an easy solution to all of this. Do away with the top-35 rule and let drivers earn their way into races. No guarantees. The fastest 43 cars get in.
According to O'Donnell, over the past three seasons no major star or sponsor would have missed a race without the rule -- those in the top 35 would have made each event.
You can't deny that Speedweeks would be a little more exciting if drivers actually had to race their way into the show. There would be that "win or go home" tension created in the NCAA basketball tournament, where the little team can knock off one of the big boys.
But there are dangers here. What if Dale Earnhardt Jr. or another popular driver has something catastrophic happen in qualifying and is sent home? Is the sport better for this? Are fans who spent hard-earned money to come see their favorite stars better for this?
NASCAR needs some sort of safety net to guarantee fans and sponsors the most bang for their buck. But there have to be limitations, which is why there is such an uproar over the SHR-TBR arrangement.
"More people are upset of it being Danica more than anything else," Pemberton says. "That's not fair."
There is a certain bit of Patrick influence in the degree of outrage over this. We didn't hear much noise when defending Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was guaranteed a spot in the 500 because he inherited the No. 6 points at Roush.
But again, that's one team dealing with one driver. The SHR-TBR deal remains, no matter how NASCAR spins it, two teams and two drivers for one car. It smells of conspiracy not only to get Patrick in the 500, but likely to guarantee her a spot in all 10 Cup races she runs.
Even professor Pemberton understands the confusion.
"I get it," he says. "But that's the way it is sometimes."
Unfortunately, he's right.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.