Top 35 is key for Patrick before Darlington
Tommy Baldwin is confident the No. 10 Chevrolet his team is campaigning for Stewart-Haas Racing and Danica Patrick's 10-race Sprint Cup work-study program will be safely inside the top 35 in owner points by May 12, freeing her from having to qualify on speed at Darlington, one of NASCAR'S more nettlesome tracks.
Tony Eury Jr., Patrick's crew chief in her first full-time Nationwide Series season, hopes Baldwin is right. If not, many detailed plans could be undone early in the season.
"My biggest fear is we roll into Darlington, a place she's never been, and we have to learn that track and set it up right for her, and oh, by the way, we're going to run a Cup car the same weekend," Eury said in a phone interview. "There's going to be a lot going on that weekend, and I'm just worried about it. I've got to get her spirits pretty high, because if it gets low there, you need something to rebound off of."
The egg-shaped, 1.366-mile track is a test of skill and nerve, legendary for providing newcomers the "Darlington stripe" required to race millimeters, and sometimes less, from its imposing walls. Eury said Patrick not having to qualify would be "huge." The problem involves not only confidence and experience but also multitasking, he said.
"The problem is, if you're not in the top 35, then all you're going to do is qualifying runs that whole first day," he said. "You spend all your time on qualifying runs and you don't get any time working on the track, where the most laps she can get is better for her.
"It's going to a big weekend. There's going to be a lot going on. I think there's going to be a lot going through her mind, and we have to see how she handles it."
Being forced to qualify, Eury said, would threaten to disrupt Patrick's carefully crafted Sprint Cup indoctrination and her Nationwide effort. In her Cup debut at the Daytona 500 this season, she was involved in an early crash requiring lengthy repairs and finished 38th. Patrick also has sustained a series of Nationwide disappointments, with a best finish of 12th at Las Vegas and a five-race average of 25th. Darlington will be her second Cup race.
"If she goes in locked into the top 35, then I can look at it as getting more lap time. And [SHR competition director and Patrick race strategist Greg Zipadelli] is definitely going to run her as many laps as he can, so she's going to be in a better rhythm when the race comes around," Eury said. "Where if she's over there just doing two laps at a time and she ain't got but six set of tires, she's not really going to learn a whole lot over there. That's going to be the bummer."
Patrick and SHR devised Patrick's Cup schedule to expose her to the peculiar and the arduous before attempting an expected full-time move in 2013. Darlington will be time lost unless she is assured a starting spot, Eury said.
"That was the whole reason of having that car in the top 35; you guarantee that she gets to run all the laps so she gets all the experience she needs," he said. "That's why she picked all the hard tracks. It's not because, 'Hey, I'm going here to compete for wins.' It's more of being at a track and that when she goes Cup racing that she's going to need the most experience on to be successful."
Baldwin said there are no punitive repercussions if the No. 10 falls from the top 35 in points before one of Patrick's scheduled starts. Though SHR has a keen interest in a smooth program for Patrick, Baldwin said his new partner is not micromanaging the operation of the No. 10 car. The car uses a Hendrick Motorsports chassis and engine -- like all SHR cars -- when Patrick drives it and an Earnhardt-Childress engine in the other 26 races with David Reutimann.
"I think I have spoken to [Zipadelli] three times on some occasions this season just trying to get some things set up or some things we need to work on," Baldwin said. "But that's it. People assume a lot of things, what we got going on, and it's bad that assumption is going on."
Baldwin said he is confident the No. 10 will reside in the top 35 in points by the time Reutimann completes races at Texas, Kansas, Richmond and Talladega, where he has four combined top-10 finishes in 35 starts. Reutimann has sustained two engine failures in five starts in the No. 10 this season. Still, the car enters the seventh race at Texas in 36th position, just one point behind the BK Racing No. 83 Toyota driven by Landon Cassill and 13 ahead of the No. 30 Inception Motorsports Toyota driven by veteran journeyman David Stremme.
A litany of early problems imperiled the No. 10's position, and it ranked 34th in points going into last weekend's race. Reutimann was berated after he admitted to nursing the hobbled car around Martinsville Speedway in an attempt to recoup a top-35 points spot. Instead, his engine expired before he could pit after being black-flagged by NASCAR, and the car languished on the track with a scheduled two laps left, causing a caution and dramatically altering the outcome of the race.
Reutimann was dispirited afterward, apparently banging his head backward against a hauler before a television interview and saying, "I was just trying to limp around there. We needed to finish the next couple of laps to try to stay in the top 35."
"He was doing what we were asking him to do," Baldwin said. "He didn't do anything wrong."
NASCAR rules assure cars in the top 35 in owner points spots in races, ostensibly to protect full-time teams and their sponsors. Those outside must qualify each weekend. Patrick began the season with a five-race buffer because SHR, with whom she is expected to make her full-time Cup debut next season, entered a preseason "collaborative partnership" with Baldwin's four-year-old, two-car team, assigning the points Dave Blaney earned in finishing 33rd in points in 2011 to the No. 10 Chevrolet. Cup veteran and two-race winner Reutimann was signed just before the season to drive the 26 races not taken by Patrick and, in essence, shepherd the car into the top 35.
Baldwin said the option exists to again exchange points with Blaney, though one NASCAR official considered that prospect dubious. The sanctioning body denied Michael Waltrip Racing's request to shuffle points in 2008 because the transaction did not involve a merger and came during the season.
"We're not looking that far ahead yet because we feel like the way we've been running with the 10 car, we've had circumstances happen to us,'' Baldwin said. "But the way we've been running relative to the guys we're around in points, we still feel like we'll be OK. But [points-swapping] could happen, yes."
That solution likely would be wildly unpopular among competitors and fans but arguably worthwhile for Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing in the broader process of readying one of racing's most evocative drivers for a career at the pinnacle of North American motorsports.
Baldwin said he cannot determine whether the SHR collaboration has been worthwhile, mainly because some of the marketing and cross-organization benefits he expects have yet to trigger just one race into Patrick's Cup schedule.
"I don't think there is any more pressure," Baldwin said. "We're not racing for Danica's career. We're racing for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Danica's races are every bit as important as our races, but this isn't all about saving Danica's career, making Danica's career. This is about Tommy Baldwin Racing. We have pressures every day. We're going to get through this."