Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday May 3, 2007
It seemed like a good idea at the time. How many times has this phrase been used to justify a mistake? The time you fell off the monkey bars trying to fly? The time Freddie tried to take the rowboat airborne? The time someone decided that locking 35 cars into the field every weekend would actually not be a colossal screw-up?
But from the start, the Top 35 rule has been nothing short of a sham. This week, NASCAR announced that they were, at long last, looking at ways to "tweak" the Nextel Cup qualifying procedure. The problem is, a patch isn't going to fix a chasm. What NASCAR needs to pull off is a complete overhaul of the qualifying system-one that is fair to all of the entrants and, more importantly, their fans.
I must confess I don't even remember why NASCAR said they changed qualifying to lock in the top 35 teams in owners' points. Probably something to do with sponsor dollars and the complete and utter fear of Armageddon occurring should one of their top stars miss the field. Guess what, the world wouldn't end, even if Dale Junior himself missed the field come Sunday.
At Talladega last week, the car that ran 20th in time trials went home empty handed. That means that 23 cars ran slower laps-*and still made the race.* NASCAR says this is what the fans want, but it's an insult to a fan's intelligence-and their loyalty. I'd hazard a guess that most of us aren't going to stop cheering for our favorite driver, or using his sponsor's products, because he missed a race. In fact, without their driver in the race, some fans might partake of more of the product. (No, I'm not suggesting they might drink more Bud, I was thinking along the lines of shopping at Home Depot or Lowe's or car maintenance or something. But whatever works.)
In any case, it's time to fix this. I never bought the whole "fans want to see their driver" thing. What about the fans of the drivers who struggle to make the field each week? Are they somehow less important than the bandwagon fans who like a driver "because he's so-o-o cute?" Are they even less important than the diehards who have followed their man for years? That's ridiculous. Racing boils down to drivers and fans. Every fan deserves an equal chance to cheer for their driver on Sunday. And it could easily be done.
There was never really anything wrong with the old system of qualifying that couldn't be easily fixed with a tweak. The way it was, with 37 cars qualifying on time and six receiving provisional spots based on points standings, was certainly a better option than the current system. It would still allow for a cut tire for Jeff Gordon or engine trouble for Dale Junior by handing them a spot based on their current performance. In essence, it's the opposite of what's happening now. In fact, limit the provisionals teams can use as the past champion's spot is limited now, drop the total number of provisionals to three, and you would have a system that is fair to all the sponsors, drivers, teams and fans.
The best possiblilty is to qualify every car on speed, locking in most of the fastest but offering cars after a certain cutoff point to requalify in a second round, a system that was used successfully (albeit still with a few provisional spots) for years. This protects drivers who have car trouble or crashes in the first round.
Although, would it really be so terrible for the sport to throw caution to the wind and just start the 43 fastest cars in a single round of qualifying? True, it could have an impact on the championship; reigning Cup champ Jimmie Johnson would have missed the first Dover race last year. However, right now several teams risk going home every week, despite being full-time teams with sponsors to worry about just as much as the big teams. Again, who is to say that Carquest deserves to race every week more than NAPA? That’s just like saying Tony Stewart’s fans are more important than Ken Schrader’s, isn’t it?
Any of these systems would be better than the one we have now. Saying that the Top 35 have the right to a spot based on their continuing past success is ridiculous, and ignorant of what racing was built upon. Racing is a sport based on what a driver can get of a car on any given Sunday. The problem is, NASCAR is disregarding this principle on Friday, when far too much of the weekend is determined by what a team did last week. That's not what racing is about. Last week is over. Teams should have to pony up this week, or risk going home. No matter who they are.
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