Holding a Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday May 17, 2007
Just when you think it can't get any crazier, it does. Taking advantage of a long-standing NASCAR rule and a new twist on that rule, Wood Brothers/JTG Racing announced Thursday that Bill Elliott will take over driving duties in the No. 21 Little Debbie/Motorcraft Ford, beginning with the Coca-Cola 600 next weekend.
Prior to the announcement, veteran Ken Schrader and rookie Jon Wood were scheduled to split seat time this year, with Schrader grooming Wood to take over full time in 2008. Now those plans are on hold, as Elliott takes the reins for the foreseeable future. He won't be mentoring Wood as a driver, because Wood won't be driving and Schrader will no longer have to rely on a cardboard cutout if he wants to take a quick donut break. Apparently, the next several weeks will all be one big donut break for the four-time Cup Series winner and his protÃ©gÃ©.
Why the sudden change of heart? Easy. Elliott is a past Nextel Cup Champion. This gives him automatic entry into the next six races that the car doesn't qualify for on speed. Good, I suppose, for a team that is 39th in owner points and in danger of not making races. They missed the field at Talladega and Richmond before Schrader qualified eighth at Darlington last week. Having Elliott on board would guarantee the team a start in the next six races. Bad for the team’s regular drivers, the fans, and the other drivers in the field.
The way the current rule reads, a past champion who does not qualify on time may use a provisional to start in 43rd spot. The rule was instituted when Richard Petty missed a race, prompting backlash. It's been tweaked to limit usage to six per year after a few drivers used it numerous times in the late 1990's and early 2000's, making their qualifying efforts look foolish. The rules also stipulate that the driver receiving the spot must have participated in the Cup series in the previous season, but nothing about a full-time bid in either the previous or current season. If two drivers are eligible for the spot, it goes to the most recent past champion. The last part is of no consequence to Elliott; Dale Jarrett has used his season allotment, and other recent past champions Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, and Bobby Labonte are all firmly inside the Top 35 in owners' points, locking them into the field on points.
Given the current level of competition in Nextel Cup racing, it's time to revamp this rule or give it the heave-ho. In all six races that Jarrett used the rule, a faster car went home. When it is coupled with the Top 35 rule, a lot of faster cars went home in the first eleven races. And now, it's being used to oust two well-liked and hard-working drivers out of a ride.
Sure, Bill Elliott is a nice guy and Most Popular Driver for like 800 years in a row. But he's retired. He keeps getting persuaded to strap in one more time, but is the move because the teams want a nice guy, who was once the fastest thing on four wheels and popular to boot? No. They only want the guaranteed starting spot he can provide. It's not fair to Elliott. It's not fair to Schrader and Wood. It's not fair to the fans or the team that goes home when the provisional gets handed out.
It's time for NASCAR to reconsider this archaic practice. It's no longer for the fans. It's for the teams to buck the system and frankly, it's getting a little old. If NASCAR has to keep up appearances, the rule should at least be limited to drivers slated to run in the series full-time in the current season. That would keep the drivers hired in the seat unless they were ousted for another full time driver as is the nature of the game. It's one thing to fire a driver, it's another to shelve him until another guy has outlived his own use to the team. The way the rule is written, just about anyone with a Cup on the mantle could attempt one race this year (that's "participating") and get six free rides in 2008, taking either the seat or the starting spot away from someone else who wants to race full time, who can go faster, and who is running the full schedule for all the glory they can get on their own-without an outdated rule on their side.
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