Happy Hour : The Official Columnist of NASCAR · Kurt Smith · Friday August 29, 2008
Happy Hour’s Kurt Smith is on vacation yet again and, quite frankly, we’re starting to wonder if that guy ever works (and from some of the email we get about him, it looks like some of you agree). But in his absence, Kurt left us a little commentary while he’s on a Happy Hour of his own down at the beach — this time about the slightly controversial Top 35 rule. Look for him to return with his regular column — along with his ever-popular Shorts — next week.
A lot of folks have a beef about the Top 35 rule. They believe — and I have a hard time arguing against it — that since the word “qualify” means “to demonstrate the required ability in an initial or preliminary contest,” and that is exactly what qualifying should entail.
But all that talk is indicative of how qualifying has undergone an increased level of awareness in our eyes — regardless of what you believe. In the past couple seasons of NASCAR’s edict that drivers in the Top 35 in owner points are guaranteed a spot in each weekly contest, broadcasters and journalists frequently speculate on what it means to “get your car in the Top 35” or who is “on the bubble” and who must “qualify on time.” How far we’ve come, indeed…we now spend time at water coolers and websites speculating about drivers who are around 35th in the standings. We didn’t care about that very much in the past, I’m certain. Maybe NASCAR isn’t so dumb after all.
Let’s look at some background here so we can dig a little deeper. The Top 35 rule was conceived so that the popular drivers and teams that competed every week would be guaranteed to be in the race. Basically, the rule amounts to NASCAR handing out as many as 35 provisionals at each event — and when you add the past champion’s provisional, that number rises to 36. With 50 entries for an event (an increasingly rare amount in Cup races these days), the maximum amount of provisionals needed would only be seven — but the Top 35 rule makes them available to everyone who has performed well enough to be part of what’s an “exclusive” club.
But there have been some abuses — for lack of a better word — since this rule was put into effect three years ago. Debuting with a new team, Sam Hornish, Jr. was given the No. 2 of Kurt Busch’s owner points when he entered the No. 77 car for Penske Racing. The move was made so he would have no problem making the first five races, with Busch able to fall back on his champion’s provisional on the off chance that he did not qualify fast enough. Michael Waltrip Racing pulled a similar stunt, giving David Reutimann’s points in the No. 00 car to Michael McDowell — a fresh rookie who performed fairly admirably, but certainly did not earn his way into the Top 35.
You can’t blame teams for exploiting this loophole of sorts — loopholes in rules are part of what makes the cars go round — but it’s doubtful that the intent or spirit of the rule was so that a driver who is new to Cup could be guaranteed a spot in races simply by virtue of being on a successful team — all while struggling teams bust their butts to make the field every week.
New teams also face a seriously uphill climb with the Top 35 rule. Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull — heck, Toyota in general when they appeared on the NASCAR scene — were often not able to participate in races during their debut season of 2007. Because they didn’t make each event, they couldn’t make up any ground, and so every week, they struggled to make the field again without the benefit of 400-500 miles of seeing how their cars behave on certain tracks. For new teams, the Top 35 rule was — is — an unfair catalyst of a vicious cycle of subpar performance.
But there’s two sides to every story. In defense of the Top 35 rule, there’s always a “ratings matter more than fair competition” argument that can be presented — an argument that is used frequently in defense of the Chase. If there’s no provisional system — just a qualifying round where the fastest 43 cars make the field — what happens if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wrecks during qualifying? Also, what if someone going for the championship hits the wall and qualifies 44th? You’ve suddenly got a whole world full of frustrated fans, people who traveled thousands of miles only to see a main event without one of its headline participants.
The obvious response to such a rhetorical bluff like that is to smash right through it — so what? Should popular drivers, drivers competing for championships, or drivers with big time sponsors be automatically entitled to a spot in the race? That is the implication of that argument, making it not only easy but worthwhile to shoot it down in flames. Take it to the next logical step, and NASCAR’s main concern shouldn’t be about the competition — just that popular drivers get on TV.
Having said all this, ultimately the Top 35 rule is the symptom of a flawed qualifying system — not the problem itself. The qualifying rules as they are have created a situation that necessitates a cushion. A driver gets two laps and that’s it; and if he spins in some oil on the track, well, tough cookies. Without a Top 35 rule, you would indeed see popular drivers — or championship contenders — not making the field on occasion, and sometimes through no fault of their own. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad or wrong thing, but it leaves too little margin for error and punishes simple mistakes too severely.
Like a DNF, teams would just have to accept it as part of the game, in hopes that all of the drivers would tend to get bit by the bad luck bug at some point. But a DNQ is an awfully stiff penalty to pay for what might not even be the driver or team’s fault. It would mean zero points for the week; not the already-harsh 35-50 generally associated with a DNF.
Zero points for the week because of some oil on the track? That’s a little too rough, even for a traditionalist like myself. DNFs already are more damaging to a driver and a team than they should be; by comparison, a DNQ with no provisionals of any kind would be devastating, and probably beyond a point where a team can recover.
The Top 35 rule at least provides a cushion for such incidents. It isn’t fair to new teams or single car struggling teams who might outqualify members of the Top 35 club, but it also gives a sort of mulligan to the “in the heat of battle” teams that might be victims of an incident while running just two laps.
So yeah, NASCAR could rule that the fastest 43 cars make the race regardless — but each driver getting just two laps, and living with the result no matter what, isn’t a great way to do it. It’s been suggested that as a compromise, drivers can get an extra, optional attempt at qualifying with their backup car if their initial effort either falls short of the field or results in a damaged car. Or maybe — and this is very far-fetched, but some people would love it — they could have 10-20 lap “heat races” on the day of the event, like at some dirt tracks. Speaking from a fan’s view, this might actually generate higher ratings than televised qualifying currently does. Having such heats the same day of the race would also leave drivers and crews with Friday to either take an always-needed day off, or simply work on practice. Personally, I think heat races would be awesome. But that’s just me.
Besides, multiple chances at qualifying or heat races would allow more of the cream to rise to the top anyway. A team might be off the first attempt of qualifying, but if they have another shot at it, they could nail it. In a heat race, we’d generally find out who is genuinely worthy of the main event.
Certainly, there are reasons to dislike the Top 35 rule — and it certainly isn’t wrong to say go fast or go home, whether you’re Stanton Barrett or Jeff Gordon. The old set of qualifying rules, with the provisionals granted as they were, wasn’t enough of a disaster to inspire the current system. But then, given how unforgiving and brutal an on-track incident during qualifying would become with such a hard line no-provisionals-whatsoever rule, that can be a small defense of the Top 35. It’s not the best way to do things, but the Top 35 rule in and of itself is a symptom of a larger issue — that being the otherwise unforgiving nature of the current set of qualifying rules.
And unless that is addressed to give all drivers more of a cushion, we’d probably be better off living with some sort of provisional system instead.
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