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What if - 2012 NASCAR Cup Martinsville race had no late caution?
This is one I had meant to make before but never did... so gonna fix that now!

Alrighty, this featured a very controversial moment for the 2012 season but we're going to need some background information to get going.

Danica Patrick, an IndyCar driver, wanted to start running in NASCAR and had run limited schedule in the Nationwide/Xfinity series from 2010-2011 to get stock car experience and was preparing to run full time in the Cup Series in 2013.
To help with this, she picked up a full time ride in the Xfinity series with the JR Motorsports #7 Chevy (which JRM has ties to Hendrick Motorsports who in turn has a relation with Stewart-Haas Racing) for the 2012 season while retiring from the IndyCar Series. She also picked up a limited schedule Cup Series ride with Stewart-Haas in the #10 Chevy (since Robby Gordon Motorsports had the #7).
Well this is where things get interesting.

NASCAR, at least in the Cup Series, used a Top 35 system for qualifying cars.
How'd it work?
Cars score driver points, owner points, and some will also score manufacturer points for those three championships. The owner's points were very important back then.
The top 35 cars in owner's points were locked into every race.
This was to help reward cars that ran well as well as ones that attempted every race.
New to the series, a small team not running well, or a new entry, well too bad for you unless you can make deals to use another team's owner points or buy out their entry's owner points (and thus be permitted to use them).
The only exception was that a past series champion was permitted to use a Past Champion's Provisional to help keep them in the races (though I think there was a limit to how often you could use one but I don't know what it is).
The remaining 7-8 spots (depending on if a champion needed the provisional) were divvied up based on qualifying speed of the cars not locked in.

This threw a wrench in the works for SHR and Danica.
Danica needed to run some Cup races to help her get experience, but SHR didn't likely want to (or have the resources to) scrap together a third full-time car to make sure she's locked into the ten races she planned to run.
So they hatched a plan.
They went to a small team named Tommy Baldwin Racing, and offered them a deal.
The deal was SHR was going to run a car for Danica for her ten races, using a TBR car's owner points for those attempts. TBR just needed to keep that specific car locked in the Top 35 and could run the car the remaining 26 races.
So TBR ran the #10 Chevy (with David Reutimann the primary driver), while also running a second full time car (#36, Dave Blaney the primary driver) and a part time third car (#37).
Things started off ok, with Danica locked into the first race, the Daytona 500.
But by the time Martinsville rolled around, things weren't so happy for TBR.
That #10 car needed some points to get back into the Top 35!

So that leads us to... the controversial incident...

Race is approaching the end, Hendrick Motorsports teammates running 1-2-3 (#24 Jeff Gordon, #48 Jimmie Johnson, #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and less than 5 laps to go.
Happy days for Hendrick fans right?
Well not quite.
The TBR #10 was having lots of issues and was running off pace.
Several cars were many laps down or out of the race from crash damage and mechanical problems along the several start-and-park entries.
The #10 had the opportunity to hit pit road but failed to do so and then stalled on the track, forcing the late-race caution that changed everything.

The #10 of Reutimann was bashed by the commentary crew and by fans heavily as teams scramble to figure out a strategy for the final restart in a Green-White-Checker finish.
The #24 and #48 stay out, the #88 and others pit.
It's time for the final restart, the Top 5 cars are the #24, #48, the #2 of Brad Keselowski, the #15 of Clint Bowyer, and the #39 of Ryan Newman.
The front two haven't pit and have worn out tires, this should get interesting.

Race restarts and it quickly goes downhill.
The #15 car, with the #39 possibly helping shove him a bit, flies into the first corner and gets into the #24, spinning them and the #48 car out.
The #24 saves it and keeps going while the #15 and #48 get the worst of it.
This forces a caution and since the leaders hadn't taken the white flag, we attempt a Green-White-Checker again.
This time no chaos and the #39 car wins the race. (#10 forcing the caution) (GWC #1, featuring the spin) (the last 20 laps of the race in general)

The #10 car was bashed heavily and many were confused why the #10 was still running around on track when he was so many laps down and with a car that was having issues.
Well Speed's Jimmy Spencer explained it and it makes sense.
The #10 car was just one point out of the Top 35 for owner's points.
Since each car it passes is another point, it just needed to pass one more car.
Well the next car in line was the TBR teammate #36! Even better was it wasn't on track! (Which I speculate TBR had the #36 pull off track so the #10 could pass it).
If the #10 could run 5 more laps of the remaining 8 (at the time of the radio chatter), it would pass the #36 and gain that precious point.
That is the big reason the #10 kept running on track, without a doubt.
Thankfully SHR didn't need the #10 the next week and TBR/Reutimann were able to rush it back into the Top 35 for Danica's races.

I feel this incident led to the removal of the Top 35 and lessening the importance of the owner's points beyond the championship battle.
In 2013, NASCAR switched to a new system, at least for the national series.
Instead the Top X (36 for Cup, not sure on lower series) cars lock in based on qualifying speed irregardless of their owner points or if they're full time or not or even a new/parttime entry.
Though as to help reward better performers and full time entries still, the remaining positions are given based on owner's points highest-to-lowest of the cars attempting to get in including one spot always being reserved for a past champion should they need it which is my preferred system honestly.
(Though this system even led to controversy with some full time cars DNQ'ing in 2014 to some part-time entries though one had its time disallowed so one of them got back in but is still used to this day outside of the Cup Series who moved to a Charter System in 2016.)

Alternate-History time:

What if the #10 car didn't force a caution, would we get a Hendrick 1-2-3 finish (and Hendrick's 200th win)? (Almost certainly in my opinion.)

What if the #15/#39 didn't force the #24/#48 out of contention on that first GWC restart?
(I think the #24 would've had it won.)

Would the #10 have continued to run around with its issues if they weren't needing to gain an owner point due to the SHR deal?
(Not likely.)

If the 2013 owner's point system was in place instead of the Top 35 rule, would SHR even enter a deal with TBR in the first place? (SHR cars have speed, but with a rookie there's no guarantee and what if she had spun/crashed in qualifying. Using another car's owner points would help in that situation)
(I think they would've still gone to a team for that guarantee, but TBR wouldn't have felt as pressured to keep that car up in owner points.)
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