Monday, April 02, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Reutimann makes fateful difference from back of the pack

MARTINSVILLE - One of the beauties - or horrors, depending on your perspective - of racing is that everybody wields influence.

The superstars. The scrubs. The leaders. The lapped. Any one of them can alter the outcome, especially at a place such as this.

As we found out Sunday, the car doesn't even have to be moving.

Ryan Newman won Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, but he wasn't your story.

Oh, no. That unfortunate designation goes to David Reutimann, a 42-year-old racing veteran who fought a little too hard for the scraps of the series.

Afterward, several drivers took turns seething at Reutimann. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Brad Keselowski. Clint Bowyer.

"I would like to hear a good excuse, to be honest with you," Earnhardt said. "Because I'm sure it would be laughable."

Reutimann wasn't laughing. In fact, he looked like he was near tears after emerging from the NASCAR hauler, where he'd been questioned by officials for how he could have done what he did.

Reutimann apologized to whomever would listen.

"I just hate it," he said. "I don't even know how the race ended up finishing, but I just hate that I was involved in anything that changed the complexion of the race."

It all started - or stopped - with about three laps to go. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were dueling side by side, a familiar sight at this track. Earnhardt was running a distant third. One of them seemed destined to give Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Cup series win.

That's when Reutimann, who'd been running slowly for several circuits and was about 60 laps off the lead, stopped on the front straightaway.

Cue the caution.

And ultimately, cue the carnage.

The yellow flag bunched the field, setting up the wild finish that saw Gordon get wrecked (and later run out of gas), Johnson hit the wall and Newman slide through for the victory.

Maybe some of that happens anyway. There's no way of knowing whether somebody else would have brought out the caution. That's by no means a far-fetched notion at Martinsville.

But in the aftermath, nobody was in a mood to consider that. One clear scapegoat emerged.

"I don't know what the hell the 10 car was doing," Bowyer said, referring to Reutimann. "He drove around there for 10 laps with no brakes and finally just stopped. That was ridiculous."

Keselowski called Reutimann's actions "really, really uncalled for." Earnhardt thought so, too.

"Hell, how many laps down are you?" Earnhardt said. "Get on pit road. Get out of the race."

So why didn't he? Because like everyone else out there, Reutimann was fighting for something.

In his case, he was battling to stay in the top 35 in owner points. That ensures a driver doesn't have to qualify on time to make the field.

Had he managed to finish, he would have been 35th. And considering he shares his ride with Danica Patrick, that's a huge deal for that team.

Not making it to the finish left him in 36th - and just as frustrated as the others.

"I was just trying to limp around there," he said. "The motor had been breaking up for the last couple of laps. Broke a timing belt or whatever down the back straightaway, and the motor just quit.

"I would have not stopped on the freaking racetrack. I would have limped around there and come to pit road, which is what I was trying to do. The thing just quit going."

NASCAR waved the black flag at Reutimann as he came around to the frontstretch for the final time - the signal that he needed to pit. By then, though, it was too late.

"I know it [stinks]," he said. "I hate it for everybody that it affected. But I mean, I can't get out there and push the thing."

But the point is he was pushing it. Pushing his car as far as it could go - too far, as it turned out.

Reutimann's crime was a refusal to quit. And ultimately, that crime - whether it's competing for the win or for 35th in owner points - is one that can be forgiven.

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