The Frontstretch: The Time is Right For a Change to Top 35 Rule by Amy Henderson -- Thursday April 5, 2012

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The Time is Right For a Change to Top 35 Rule

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday April 5, 2012


The NASCAR rulebook is a document that seemingly grows every year. From humble beginnings as a pamphlet handed out to teams at the beginning of every season, it’s evolved into a decent-size book that is still only handed out to teams every season. The latter part of that causes some consternation among fans and media, because keeping the rules guarded like Fort Knox isn’t exactly transparency at its finest. But one rule is crystal clear to race teams, fans, parking attendants, and anyone else who has paid even casual observance over the last several years.

The top 35 teams in owners points are locked into the next race.

At the beginning of the season, when anything can happen (like five-time champion Jimmie Johnson finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500), NASCAR uses the previous season’s owner standings, giving teams time to rectify mistakes (Johnson was ninth in owner standings by the fifth race of the year) and let the teams on the bubble establish themselves. Then, after race five, it’s every team for itself.

Thanks to a pair of incidents at Martinsville, the rule got a lot of scrutiny this week. First, The No 37 team of Tony Raines had its qualifying time thrown out after the car was too low in post-qualifying inspection. Because the team was not in the top 35, Raines didn’t race, and his spot in the race went to J.J. Yeley, the fastest of the drivers to miss making the field. That seems reasonable, but the waters are muddied by the fact that when Clint Bowyer’s No. 15 had the same infraction at Daytona and its time thrown out, Bowyer simply had to start in the back of his Gatorade Duel race and was guaranteed a start in the Great American Race.

The other incident, David Reutimann’s late-race attempt to coast around for just a couple of laps-Reutimann later admitted he’d done it in an attempt to make the laps necessary to gain a finishing position and the one point he needed to keep the No. 10 in the top 35-has been the main topic of conversation all week. Lots of people would like to make Reutimann into a scapegoat for the melee that ensued on the restart, but that one point could mean the difference for his team between racing at Texas next week and watching on TV. With the added pressure of keeping the car in the top 35 because it would mean that rookie driver Danica Patrick also would not have to qualify on speed for her next race, where people should be focusing is the rule that made those extra laps so crucial for Reutimann.

Though there are a lot of race fans that support the idea of the fastest 43 making the field, there are perils to a qualifying system that could see drivers like Dale Jr. on the sidelines.

According to an unscientific poll on “The Frontstretch’s Facebook page,”: most race fans would like to see the rule go by the wayside. 81% of those who responded were in favor of scrapping the rule altogether. That’s the number of fans that NASCAR claims said they didn’t like the two-car draft, and the sanctioning body immediately tried to break the duos up. But don’t hold your breath, the same number said on a poll that they wanted to get rid of the Chase format, and that’s not going anywhere. Both the Chase and the top 35 rule were products of NASCAR’s brain trust, and as such, a reversal would require an admission of a mistake on the part of the sanctioning body, which so far hasn’t admitted one yet.

And there are a couple of compelling reasons to keep the rule in place. As 9.5% of voters on our poll pointed out, keeping the rule is important to them because it’s expensive to go to a race, and there would be a lot of very disappointed and quite possibly irate race fans if they showed up at the race track to find that a popular face wouldn’t be in the field. Love him or not, just imagine the fan reaction at the track if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. missed a race. Or if Tony Stewart didn’t get the chance to defend his title because of a failure to qualify for a race. Those are very real concerns. While it’s true that every driver on the entry list has fans who support him, it’s also true that some very big names dominate the fan base, and by default, ticket sales. If you think there are empty seats on Sunday, imagine what it might look like if someone like Earnhardt didn’t make the race. Some of those fans, even if they bought expensive tickets, might not make the trek to the track on Sunday if their favorite wasn’t racing. In addition, how many would elect not to watch the race on television, causing ratings to plummet?

Not only would the fans be left with a sour taste if a top driver wasn’t around on Sunday, but the sponsors would be too. Another 9.5% of voters said that the rule needs to be kept in place because the sport needs sponsors to function. Like it or not, one reason sponsors choose to put their name on the cars of top drivers is because they expect to be in the field and prominently featured on the TV broadcast. They don’t put out $15-20 million to have airtime committed to them for missing the race. While you could argue that if the rule wasn’t in place, it might be easier for the smaller teams to find sponsor dollars, the big money is going to be in the big teams…and they pay to play, not to sit on the bench. The sport is in a place where it can’t afford to have sponsors walk away, and the folks in Daytona Beach understand that particular reality.

But even with two very strong arguments for keeping the rule, there’s that overwhelming 84% who said it needs to go. Not a single voter was in favor of modifying the rule to fewer drivers (the poll option was to guarantee a spot only to the top 10 in points plus the defending series champion); it was all or nothing for either keeping the rule or pitching it out with the dishwater.

Most voters (67%) said that if the Sprint Cup Series went back to two rounds of qualifying the way they used to do, the top 35 rule could be thrown out without much danger of a big star missing the race. For those who don’t remember, it worked like this: On Friday, all entrants would make a qualifying run, and the top 25 would be locked into those positions. The rest of the field had a difficult choice to make: either stand on the time from the first round or throw the time away and make another run on Saturday after a practice session. Once you decided to re-qualify, the original time was erased, meaning that if you chose to make another attempt and crashed, or were too slow, you were in danger of missing the field. You also couldn’t bump the top 25 from the previous day from those spots no matter how fast you were on the second run.

There was still a safety net in the form of five provisional spots based on points. First, the most recent past champion not otherwise in the field was given the 43rd spot, the same as they are now, and the last four sports, 39th-42nd, were given to drivers not in the field already based on their owner point standings. If there was no past champion, the last spot went to whomever was next in points. The system worked well, but went by the wayside in the late 1990’s amid complaints of an unfairness because the teams who had locked in on time had extra practice time in race trim. (Which could easily be alleviated by allowing only the teams who elected to re-qualify the opportunity to run in that practice.) The top 35 rule came about a few years later as entries dwindled, allowing a few teams to overuse the provisional system and as sponsor pressure mounted.

Could such a system be viable again after over a decade? Well, yes. It would give a couple of safety nets to a championship contender or fan favorite if they missed the setup or had a bad lap or a spin. While that does still mean that a slower lap could make it in the race over a faster one, it would eliminate the two larger problems of the inconsistent application of inspection rules based solely on the team’s point standing as nobody would be guaranteed a start if they failed, and slow cars on the racetrack trying to gain one point to lock themselves into the next race, because it would all be based on what you did during the current week-there would be no last week and no next week, just right now.

The last 14% of voters said NASCAR should go even further and simply hold a single round of qualifying, with the fastest 43 cars making the field. This has merit as well, although it does carry a higher risk of a big name not making the field should that driver make a mistake during his or her run. It is racing, after all, and purists have long been wanting a system where qualifying was based solely on speed. It would ensure that practice time was more equitable, and would allow every sponsor an equal chance to be in the field, which could encourage sponsors to pick up smaller teams.

In any case, between the events that took place at Martinsville and the sentiment of race fans, the top 35 rule has some serious flaws, from creating a grossly unfair system in which teams are penalized for violations based on their points position, with teams lower in points being penalized much more harshly then the ones in the top 35, to teams making questionable moves during a race because a point is on the line. Just as importantly and probably more so, if our poll was any indication, the fans are overwhelmingly against it. If I made the call, it would be to go back to two rounds of qualifying with just a handful of provisional spots. I really can’t see a big name going home under this system, with its two failsafe measures.

NASCAR took drastic measures a few months ago because the fans were loud and clear about the two-car draft at Daytona and Talladega. It could be a huge move on behalf of the sanctioning body to recognize the fans on the top 35 rule as well, and to restore a more equitable system for qualifying, one that won’t set up the type of situations we saw at Martinsville. Yes, they would have to admit there was a mistake…but ultimately, it would save face with the fans. It’s time to do something really important for the fans, and dropping this rule makes perfect sense. Doing the right thing isn’t the easy thing, but this time it means keeping fans while making the sport fair and safer. It should be a no-brainer.

Contact Amy Henderson

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04/06/2012 06:18 AM

NHRA does not have a top 35 rule, sometimes a “big name” will miss a race and yet they seem to fill the stands at the races every week. Yes, it is time for top 35 rule to go away.

04/06/2012 06:37 AM

Think of that added drama of second day qualifying! How many more people would watch both sessions to see if their favorite driver would make the field? Isn’t that just the sort of ‘excitement’ Nascar tries to manufacture? How much better if it happens on it’s own.

MJR in Springfield, VA
04/06/2012 08:11 AM

I couldn’t help but notice Amy you used two huge contradictions in terms. And not only that, but you did it in the same sentence. Here, let me show you: “…NA$CAR’s brain trust…” and “…an admission of a mistake on the part of the sanctioning body…”

See. Please try and be more careful in your future writings it’s not very healthy for any of the new NASCAR fans that are pouring into the sport. Darn it, I went and did it myself…my bad.

04/06/2012 08:28 AM

Intelligent decisions based on racing are not made in NASCAR by the current executive and his toadies. But decisions based on money are.

04/06/2012 09:59 AM

Top 35 rule blows, along with the free pass or lucky dog as they say !!

Glen H.
04/06/2012 10:06 AM

Like Jim said, the NHRA doesn’t have a top 35 rule and they do just fine.

Last year John Force – probably the biggest name in drag racing – missed the show and they still had a big crowd for the final eleminations.

04/06/2012 11:03 AM

I do like the old qualifying system, but really NASCAR could have addressed this in the point system when they made changes to it.

Just award five points, or whatever, for all positions under 20th or 25th. There would be no incentive for damaged cars to be on the race track.

Duncan Macleod
04/06/2012 11:49 AM

I would like to see the top 30 to 35 cars scored to keep wrecked cars off the track. As far as qualifying, the old system was fine. Allow a finite number of provisional positions and make qualifying count.

04/06/2012 01:20 PM

I agree with the idea to award the same number of points to drivers finishing below about 25th or 30th…I have long felt like that would be a good solution to keep damaged cars from staying out on the race track. It could also keep a bad day from hurting a driver as much in the standings.

As for qualifying, I say take the top 40 speeds and have 3 provisionals. I think there needs to be a backup plan in place just in case a top driver crashes or blows an engine in qualifying…but 3 provisionals is plenty. Set the rest of the field by speed!

04/06/2012 04:09 PM

Solid article, Amy. The provisional system was scrapped because the sanctioning body thought fans didn’t understand.

However, they allow convoluted point-swaps to take place with this system. The provisional system worked fine and with the lack of entries at the moment, the current locked-in field can be abolished. Will BZF and NASCAR do this? No.

Put an emphasis on qualifying again outside of pit position, whether taking the fastest 36-40 and the rest provisionals. Those provisionals would keep the drivers that matter in the show.

If you are a champion in the past 20 years, you can utilize a past-champion provisional.

This would lock-out Awesome Bill and Texas Terry, but they are running for teams that should not be taking spots from regulars.

Bill B
04/08/2012 10:27 AM

I loved the old qualifying system and if we could go back to that I am all for it. Maybe lowering the provisionals from 5 to 3 and only allowing all drivers 2 or 3 uses of the provisional in one season.
I for one don’t like the idea of a championship contender being knocked out because they made one mistake on one qualifying lap. The other side of this is that you might end up making a serious team sit out a race to open the door for a few more start and park teams to make it. That won’t make Sunday’s race any better will it?
Interesting question to fans, if you had a choice to get rid of the Top 35 Rule OR the Chase, which would it be?
Definitely the chase for me.

04/08/2012 03:27 PM

I have only been a fan since 2003. I go to both local Cup races every year.

I would still go, no matter who was in or out of the running.

I just like watching the racing, not some particular driver.

If I am the “new fans” NA$CAR is looking to impress they are missing the mark.

Real fans of any sport prefer competition no matter how the game plays out. They don’t like manufactured excitment.

04/09/2012 03:16 PM

Great article. As a long time fan, I would like to see something like the following. The previous year’s chase qualifiers are locked in. This would cover a large share of the fan’s favorites. Then 13-40 qualify on time. 41-43 would be provisionals. However, limit them to just 2 or 3 as suggested above. Then the same with scoring as suggested above. After 25th place, all cars get the same points to keep the wrecks off the track.

04/09/2012 03:19 PM

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Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.