Will Flu Impact NASCAR's Final Chase Races?

Mary Jo BuchananSenior Writer IOctober 17, 2009

FONTANA, CA - OCTOBER 09:  David Reutimann, driver of the #00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota sits on pit wall during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway on October 9, 2009 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)

With the Center for Disease Control reporting widespread flu symptoms in 41 states, including North Carolina (host to the fifth race in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship), it is no wonder that the illness is starting to impact the garage area.

Last week, Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M's/Susan G. Komen for the Cure Toyota, was so sick with the flu and other complications, that he had to step out of the car for both the Nationwide and Cup races.

“It felt like a cold was coming on and then I got a really, really bad fever and then got cold chills and everything and had a hard time sleeping all week because of the cold chills and stuff,” Busch said about the week leading up to the California races.

“I don’t know if it was the swine flu, I don’t know if it was H1N1. It was the flu."

It was just announced today that David Reutimann, driver of the Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota, is the most recent driver that has fallen ill with flu-like symptoms. 

Like Busch, Reutimann will most likely need a substitute driver and it has been reported that Dave Blaney, who came in third in the Nationwide Race last night at Lowe's Motor Speedway, will be standing by to step in as needed.

"David got an IV this morning and has been resting," Michael Waltrip Racing's general manager Ty Norris said. "We're going to have Dave Blaney standing by just in case."

Blaney had to take a detour as he had been traveling to South Boston, Virginia to watch his son race. He turned his car around to be ready to fill in for Reutimann if needed.

Reutimann is the defending race winner at Lowe's Motor Speedway. He won the spring race at Charlotte, the Coca Cola 600, by virtue of a good strategy call in the rain-shortened race.

The Michael Waltrip Racing driver was very much looking forward to defending his title at this year's Banking 500 at NASCAR's "home track."

"David had a really fast car in practice yesterday and was real excited about the race today," Norris said.

Norris said that Reutimann began feeling ill last night before the Nationwide race. The decision about stepping out of the car will most likely be made at the time of the driver's meeting.

While neither Reutimann and Busch are in the Chase for the Championship, both have been felled by the flu. And in the confined garage area, with a group of people that travel together from race to race, there is indeed the possibility that the flu may spread to others, including the Chase contenders.

Reutimann is blaming his father for his illness. David's father "Buzzy" had suffered with the flu the week before.

Many drivers not only have families, but have children as well. Drivers with children are at even greater risk, as children can shed flu virus for days before and after any symptoms appear.

Some people may even be infected with the flu but show no symptoms. Yet during this time, they still may be contagious and passing on the virus, which is an even greater danger to the garage area.

The media who follow the NASCAR beat are reporting that crew members and drivers alike are following universal precautions to prevent the spread of the flu. Many are coughing into their sleeves and washing their hands more often.

But that is just one variable. Hundreds of thousands of fans also converge at every NASCAR race, again a virtual petrie dish of germ breeding and infection.

So what would happen if the unthinkable occurred and an epidemic of the flu ran rampant throughout the garage? And what would happen if some of the championship contenders were sidelined?

With the CDC tracking increased flu activity throughout the country and sadly, with the proportion of deaths being attributed to the flu above the epidemic threshold, there is a chance that H1N1 flu may spread throughout the NASCAR ranks during these final critical races.

If that is the case, this year's Sprint Cup Championship may not be determined by pit strategy or the fastest car on the track. It may be determined instead by who is healthy and who got sick.