The Frontstretch: Side by Side: Should The Champion's Provisional Be Dropped? by Bryan Davis Keith and Tom Bowles -- Tuesday February 10, 2009

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Side by Side: Should The Champion's Provisional Be Dropped?

Bryan Davis Keith and Tom Bowles · Tuesday February 10, 2009


Editor’s Note : The following is a special edition of Frontstretch’s Side By Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though…be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question : With the Daytona 500 the equivalent to NASCAR’s “Super Bowl,” should they automatically save a spot for a former champion who can’t qualify into the field any other way? Or should the rule be relaxed and another, faster driver installed in their place?

Drivers Earn Automatic Exemption
Tom Bowles

Terry Labonte. Bill Elliott. Tony Stewart. Those are three names burned into the heart of NASCAR fans — and rightfully so. With five titles and over 75 victories between them, they’ve accomplished more than they ever would have believed in this sport.

And that’s why one of them deserves a special exemption for races if needed.

Yeah, being the “champion” can sometimes rob a spot from someone else in the field more deserving on speed. This year, that’s the case more than ever, as “Texas Terry” will likely take the 43rd and final spot with a team that’s woefully off the pace. That can be frustrating to several others who have the speed to outperform him on the track; but Labonte’s past record likely beats any of the men he pushes to the sidelines.

Yes, I also understand how badly the ridiculous qualifying rules for Daytona are set up — that with a championship provisional, only seven spots are available for a new team trying to sneak into the race. But it’s not the champ’s fault the top 35 rule exists — and a champion’s provisional rule has been in effect long before that was a thought in anyone’s head. Among those who have taken advantage of it in the past to make this race are Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace.

And NASCAR isn’t the only sport where they reserve some spots in the field for past champions. Think of the Masters in golf. It’d be one thing if five or six of these spots were going away … but it’s only one. And the hard truth is, which driver would drivers want to see — a guy Labonte knocks out like Joe Nemechek, or Texas Terry himself?

I’ll let you answer that question. The top 35 rule has potential to handicap competition … but the champion’s provisional is just one spot out of 43.

The Past Champion’s Provisional Needs To Go
Bryan Keith

The Past Champion’s Provisional is far from a fixture in the long history of NASCAR. It is nothing more than a convoluted rule created in a knee-jerk reaction by the sanctioning body after the King himself, seven-time champion Richard Petty, failed to qualify for a race at Richmond in 1989. Yet, thanks to the rule’s constant exploitation over the last decade, it has become one of the most significant provisions in the mythological NASCAR rulebook.

And come Daytona 500 time that significance becomes all the more amplified. Need proof? It is the reason that the besieged Wood Brothers Racing team has for the last three seasons hinged their operation’s future on a semi-retired driver who has none. And it is the reason that Tony Stewart’s new Stewart-Haas Racing operation was absent from the owner point swap meets that dominated the Cup Series’ off-season rumor mill.

Granted, if Bill Elliott had to fall back on the Champion’s Provisional to lock the Wood Brothers into the Daytona 500 or Tony Stewart needed it to secure his new team a spot in the field, there are likely not that many fans that would cry foul. But don’t let these feel-good stories cloud you. The Past Champion’s Provisional has become far too powerful a force for teams trying to crack the most storied field NASCAR to offer. And with the Top 35 rule making qualifying all the harder for the smaller teams, it’s time for it to go. To make my point, I’m going to use an example from this year’s entry list, the No. 66 Prism Motorsports Toyota with Terry Labonte behind the wheel.

First and foremost, the Past Champion’s Provisional accounts in no way for a team’s attempt record, standing or performance level. Prism Motorsports and the No. 66 are in simply because they signed Terry Labonte to drive. Never mind that they have never attempted a race prior to this season. Never mind that there are teams currently outside the 500 field, such as Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 44 team and Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78, that ran the full 2008 schedule and yet find themselves in the same boat as Norm Benning and Kirk Shelmerdine. And never mind that they are an off-shoot of the MSRP Motorsports operation whose start-and-park efforts made nothing short of a mockery of the Nationwide Series last season. Having Terry Labonte in the 500 field in this fashion is an exploitation of the Provisional rule, not the purpose of it.

Mind you, Prism Motorsports is not the first team to exploit the Past Champion’s rule in this fashion. In the Nationwide Series ranks, Steve Grissom used the Provisional 15 times in 2005 to keep Jay Robinson Racing’s No. 49 Advil car on the track. Last year, Grissom took the 43rd spot in the Nationwide Series’ opening race with the Provisional and proceeded to run only three laps before parking his car while four full-time Nationwide teams were sent home.

Further, now that the Top 35 rule is in place to protect NASCAR’s future franchises, err, Cup mega-teams, from the embarrassment of being sent home by a feisty underdog, the Past Champion’s Provisional is just another barrier for new and underdog racers to get a shot at the big-time. Thanks to Prism Motorsports having Terry Labonte’s Provisional, 39 of the 43 starters for the Daytona 500 have been determined with the Duel races yet to be run. Thursday’s races are going to rival the Indianapolis 500’s Bump Day in terms of insignificance.

This problem is compounded by the fact that a lot of the teams trying to crack the Cup ranks couldn’t sign a Terry Labonte or any past champion if they wanted to. Do you think a Cup champion would have raised an eyebrow if Mike Garvey or Kirk Shelmerdine had come calling with a shoe-string budget and a dream to contest the full Cup schedule? Prism Motorsports didn’t get Terry Labonte behind the wheel because of brilliant marketing, they did because they have influential Phil Parsons as a part-owner. The same holds true for how the Wood Brothers have gotten Bill Elliott out of retirement for years now, or how Michael Waltrip got Terry Labonte and his No. 55 NAPA machine into road course races and the Brickyard 400 during his struggles in 2007.

The way that the Past Champion’s Provisional is being manipulated these days amounts to little more than protectionism of the haves by the haves. And that’s not acceptable for the Daytona 500. In addition to being one of the most renown races run anywhere in the world, it is also an essential stepping stone for any team trying to contest the Cup series. It offers needed owner points, a substantial purse and a marketable platform to entice sponsorship. And because Prism Motorsports has the influence, and thus ability, to get Terry Labonte behind the wheel of their Toyota for this one race, they’re going to have a leg up. Whether they earn it in the Duels or not, they’ll be ahead of up to 13 other teams who won’t race this Sunday and will be starting again from square one come Fontana (where I’ll bet the Prism car will revert back to the start-and-park approach of its MSRP Motorsports brethren.)

With three-quarters of the field fixed any given Sunday, allowing yet another car a means to qualify without performing on the track is unacceptable. Let’s not kid ourselves, the Past Champion’s Provisional is no longer a valued means to give the fans another chance to see a storied driver. It’s a tool, an exploitation, a blemish on the title of NASCAR champion.

Let’s send it with where Prism Motorsports will likely be for the much of the 2009 season…parking.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith
Contact Tom Bowles

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02/10/2009 07:22 AM

The “Past Champions Provisional” is the ONLY thing NA$CRAP gets right in their “qualifying”!

I would rather have a “PAST CHAMPION” be allowed to run, as opposed to “guaranteeing”
some 35 cars a spot as that sick organization NA$CRAP does right now.

At least a “past champion” has earned the right to come back, no matter for who or whom!

Keep the provisional, dump the top 35!

02/10/2009 07:40 AM

This whole“Championship Provisional” smacks of nothing more than socialism! Whatever happened to earning your way in any sport. I cant believe NASCAR is still handing out free passes just because you won a championship. I dont believe anyone should get a free pass because your a former winner, DUH!! Repeat “FORMER WINNER”. Isnt it bad enough our govt. wants to turn this country into a socialist order. Entitlements, entitlements,and more entitlements….blah blah. I’m entitled to race although I finished last in qualifying because Im entitled. Get over it people, no one should be given a free ride.

Your Championship was one because you did your job, and earned it!

Stop the handouts, if your good enough to win a championship step up to the plate and qualify your way into the field.

Just another reason this sport is going downhill.
Bill B
02/10/2009 08:07 AM

At least they have limited the ability of teams to use it more than 5 times in a season. Now perhaps they need to further specify that only teams that attempted to qualify for all 36 races in the previous year can use it in the following season (or at least the first 5 races).
I have to admit though, it kind of undermines the credibility of the sport in the larger sporting community. No other sport has anything like it – you don’t see Joe Montana or Cal Ripken guarenteed a spot on the roster if they show up. Still NASCAR and racing are different animals. I guess if it were up to me I’d limit it’s use even more – maybe 3 times a year if it’s a team that attempts to run all 36 races.

02/10/2009 08:38 AM

MMM, hey MI.Mike, your
“Whatever happened to earning your way in any sport.”

So, how do you feel that a full 35 cars are “guaranteed” a starting spot in the 2009 Daytona 500, USING 2008 POINTS?

And Bill B. your “I have to admit though, it kind of undermines the credibility of the sport in the larger sporting community.”

Guess my thought is that a “past champion” has proven his abilities over years of time, and out of 43 starting positions, using a single one to honor the past is not too much to ask.

The biggest problem as I see it, is you have 35 “phonies” guaranteed a spot, then you come along and guarantee the 36th spot to a previous champion, now you have one big mess with 36 of 43 spots in any given “race”, as NA$CRAP calls it, simply given away, who cares how fast their cars are?

And now, back to MI.Mike, your “Stop the handouts, if your good enough to win a championship step up to the plate and qualify your way into the field.”

I agree with 110%, BUT it should be for ALL cars, not just 7 cars per weekend! (43 minus 36 guaranteed spots) = 7, open spots need to be filled on speed!

But as mentioned, we are not dealing with a “real sport” anymore when it comes to NA$CRAP!

Boy, NA$CRAP can sure get our shorts riding high!

Bill B
02/10/2009 11:22 AM

If I had my way I’d go back to late 90’s qualifying with some changes; two rounds of qualifying for those that need it, four (instead of seven) provisional spots awarded by points standing, and one or two CP allowances per champion (instead of unlimitted).
You see, I have a bigger problem with someone running for a championship losing it because of one bad lap in qualifying than some no name wanna-be team missing the race because the managed to run one great lap. In my opinion the late 90’s qualifying rules did the best to provide a balance between the two extremes.

I really can’t figure out how you could call, at least, the guys in the top 20 phonies though no matter what the qualifying rules.

Randall Butler
02/10/2009 11:33 AM

Any driver who gets to use the champion’s provisional has earned it fair and square according to the rules. If you want to eliminate it, have the elimination be in effect for future champions. I do not put any stock into the opinions of obvious NASCAR haters who refer to NASCAR as “NASCRAP”.

Kevin in SoCal
02/10/2009 12:50 PM

The Champion’s Provisional is fine as long as its used by an established team competing for the full season. Such as Waltrip did as mentioned, or Hall of Fame did with Labonte to get their team started in 2006. But to use the provisional for a known start-and-park team is ridiculous.

02/10/2009 02:13 PM

socialism? what are you saying guaranteeing the 35 cars a spot is not socialism! give me a break, “ITS SOCIALISM” and all the guys that have been around racing know it is. Think about it this way, a team car that try to make five races, but did not should it be allowed, to start its the same stupid idea, just turned around

02/10/2009 04:14 PM

Hey Bill B., First, honestly I don’t really remember much about how they qualified in the 90’s compared to today’s method. It seems to me there has “always” been 35 guaranteed starting spots, from way back when.

OK, I concede that not all of the top 35 are “phonies”, but on any given weekend some of them really are!

I may let up if they guaranteed “only” 20 spots to the top point getter’s, but only maybe. I still think that over the course of 36 “races”, not making the field once or so should not be a problem (only as influenced by the phony chase points system that robs points from you)!

And again I love the fact past champions have an opportunity to race. It is NA$CRAP history we are talking about!

If a past champion wants to park his car, so be it! (did I really say that?)!

BUT! What are we REALLY arguing about??

Qualifying procedures in general, 35/36 guaranteed
spots specifically!

The current system is a joke! And please do me a favor each and every one of you!

Take a look at how they “qualify” for the 2009 version of the 500!

Takes ten (10) pages of rule books to sort that one out! (and ancient points standings, i.e., the 2008 standings apply to 2009, how sick is that one?)

How about they make it simple to start each and every race of 2009!

The fastest qualifiers race, the slowest go home!

And to Randall Butler! Take a look at all the empty seats this year, and you will see that I am not alone in calling this sick racing organization “NA$CRAP”!

That’s exactly what it is! (oh, not sure it matters, or counts, but I have been following “stock car racing” since the 50’s! And it is a shell of what it used to be. And mostly since King Brian took the reins!)

02/10/2009 09:44 PM

Drop the top 35 and the past champion rule. Make the first race of the season a clean slate and let the top 43 in, THEN, I would lock in the top ten for each of the following races. You would see people driving their butts of trying for a top 10 to guarantee a spot for the next week. I am a Dald JR fan and if he missed a race it would not be the end of the world, but the systme would be a whole lot fairer.

02/10/2009 11:43 PM

Its dangerous business getting your politics and your racing all mixed up. MI Mike, let the knot out of your drawers before you suffer a heart attack. Its only racing, and if Brian France were a Communist, it wouldn’t change things a whole lot. As far as the term NASCRAP is concerned, Douglas is just stating what I and a lot of others feel, that King Brian abandoned his fan base to chase Los Angeles, Chicago and New York new fan bases. Its no longer a race, it is a show, and just as well tag team with Vince McMahon.

We’re all just tired and want to see real racing again.

Mike O
02/11/2009 02:28 AM

It doesn’t matter what you call them, NA$CAR, NA$CRAP, whatever. The point should be they have removed themselves so far from where they started that they are all about $$$ first and everything else second. Geez, it hasn’t been that long ago the manufacturers brought their best stuff each week to compete before NA$CAR over-regulated the the sport into a 21st century IROC series. Dump the Top 35 rule, expand the CP to 3 or 4 every week so Tony, Kurt, Matt and Jimmie make it every race and get rid of the template car and over-regulation of every single part on the car.