There have always been times when NASCAR's top 35 owner points rule looked a bit silly, particularly at the start of the season when teams made confusing deals to obtain a guaranteed starting spot for the Daytona 500.
But by the time the 500 itself rolled around, the controversy usually died down and was forgotten until the next year.
Not this year, though. The top 35 rule had a direct impact on the competition during Sunday's Martinsville race, because David Reutimann was trying to maintain a coveted locked-in spot despite driving a slow and broken car.
When Reutimann's car eventually expired and he stopped on the track – for whatever reason – it completely changed the outcome of the race.
Why was Reutimann and his Tommy Baldwin Racing team so desperate to keep the car in the top 35? Because in NASCAR, the top 35 teams in the owner point standings are guaranteed a starting position for the next race. When those cars show up, they don't have to worry about missing the event.
In TBR's case, the No. 10 car is shared with Danica Patrick – and the team must have a locked-in spot for Patrick's next race (at the difficult Darlington Raceway) or she might not be able to qualify on her own.
What's wrong with this picture?
Forget for a moment that we're talking about Patrick, because her polarizing celebrity status only inflames the situation. But let's just take any driver – male or female, famous or not – who gets coddled to such a degree that a guaranteed starting spot is mandatory.
That doesn't seem right. NASCAR is a competitive sport, so a driver should be able to qualify his or her way into a race without help. If they cannot do so, they probably don't belong in the field that weekend.
You'd think that would be simple logic, but it doesn't apply in NASCAR. And the top 35 rule is being grossly manipulated this year to maddening proportions.
Here's how: Stewart-Haas Racing – which signed Patrick last year – basically out-sourced the driver to TBR, where she is "teammates" with Reutimann in the No. 10 car. SHR couldn't afford to field another full-time entry in addition to Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman's cars, so it worked out a deal with a team that could.
Patrick then technically became a TBR driver in NASCAR's eyes. Officials insist Reutimann is driving the same equipment as Patrick (wink, wink) because they're all certified as TBR cars – not SHR. And SHR's Greg Zipadelli isn't Patrick's "crew chief," he's just on the pit box as her "race strategist."
This is all a bunch of baloney, but SHR had to ensure Patrick a spot in the 10 Sprint Cup races she plans to run this year – or at least felt pressure to do so, since sponsor Go Daddy was shelling out so much money.
Under NASCAR rules, it's all legal. The sanctioning body wants to reward those teams who run every week, and officials acknowledged allowing this deal in part because it benefited the small TBR team.
But at what point does the whole charade damage the sport's respectability? After Sunday's Martinsville race, it seems like it already has.
It's just a fantasy, but wouldn't it just be better to have the fastest 43 cars make the starting field each week? You know, like making the drivers actually earn their way into the race?
The fact all this behind-the-scenes maneuvering is necessary should be somewhat embarrassing to Patrick. Though she has no experience at Darlington, do people have so little faith in her ability that they have to scramble to guarantee her a starting spot?
At Darlington, she'll be driving the same equipment team owner Tony Stewart used to win last year's championship and the same equipment with which SHR has won eight of the last 16 Sprint Cup races.
But there's really a fear she won't be able to out-qualify badly underfunded cars driven by the likes of J.J. Yeley, David Stremme or similarly inexperienced Josh Wise?
If that's the case – for any driver, not just Patrick – then he or she shouldn't be in the damn race.