During last Friday’s rain delay at the Atlanta Motor Speedway as Nextel Cup drivers were attempting to qualify for the Bass Pro Shops 500, conversation turned to how NASCAR should manage the expected surplus of well-funded race teams that will be attempting to race full schedules in 2007. The conundrum surrounds the fact that although there are only 43 cars eligible to compete at each of the 36 points-paying events, there will be upwards of 50 legitimate teams competing for those positions, resulting in many solid teams going home every weekend.
Foremost among the reasons for the upturn in both teams and sponsorship is the scheduled introduction of Toyota next season into NASCAR’s premier series. The formidable and deep-pocketed Japanese auto manufacturer has chosen to form some of their race teams from scratch instead of teaming or integrating with teams currently competing. Driver Jeff Burton believes that means some present owners’ survival in NASCAR is now in jeopardy. “It’s easy to say that if you’re not in the Top 35 (in owner points), you don’t deserve to have a place in the field,” said Burton. “(But eight or nine races into next season, there will be some longtime, quality, well-funded teams that aren’t going to have any protection on making these race fields.”
I couldn’t agree more. My position on this issue has been unwavering, as I have never believed that any driver or team should be guaranteed a starting position. The Top-35 rule, wherein teams are certain to race regardless of how well they qualify, has been a rule I’ve particularly disliked. It goes against the best interests of the sport, harming the underfunded, upstart teams that have mustered enough on-track speed, with everything being equal, the opportunity to compete.
By limiting the number of spots in the field for these underdog teams to just eight, the Top-35 rule essentially seals their fate, it may take awhile, but in the end, they will not survive. The failure of these teams hopeful of developing their race program will signal to anyone else with similar hopes that NASCAR is more concerned with protecting those that are already within the “family,” regardless of their competitiveness, than welcoming new drivers and owners into Cup racing full-time. It’s a ripple effect that, long-term, will be certain to discourage others from even attempting to move their programs to Nextel Cup.
Of course, in 2007 it won’t be teams with fewer resources out-qualifying the “protected” owners… it will be better prepared and higher quality teams hungry and eager to knock out NASCAR’s longtime juggernauts. These new Toyota teams, even if they fail to qualify early on, have both the funding and the wherewithal to come back consistently week after week until they do make the starting field. They will overcome the onerous Top-35 restriction… there’s too much at stake for them to fall by the wayside. Eventually, their presence in the sport will make Burton’s fear come true. Teams that have been a part of the sport for generations may find themselves on the outside looking in… sooner rather than later.
The irony is that when NASCAR implemented the Top-35 rule at the beginning of the 2005 season, no real protest by anyone in the garage area was heard. And why should there be? Over 80% of them were qualified for the season opener at Daytona before they even set foot in the garage. Essentially two-thirds of the teams, perennial “also rans,” were “grandfathered” into the starting lineup just by writing their name on an entry list. What the Top-35 rule accomplished was to assure that a certain level of mediocrity would be protected; for Daytona and beyond, these teams didn’t have to put effort into qualifying. They could simply “go through the motions” and be assured a starting spot for the following Sunday without so much as blinking an eye.
But now, since the Top-35 rule isn’t sufficient security to mediocre teams with the looming Toyota threat, there is more and more talk in the garage area on the idea of allowing most of the existing teams to be in some form or another franchised. Though the specifics of how this protective measure for owners would work have yet to be ironed out, the intent is that they would, like other major sports, own equity in the league; in this case, it would be the NASCAR racing series itself.
By being a fixed part of the series, franchised owners could not be excluded from competing. Should the owner choose to leave the series, he or she then would sell their valuable franchise license to the highest bidder; presumably, a deep-pocketed individual that wants to go racing. Of course, once that sale is completed, there would be a franchise fee paid to the sanctioning body, in this case, NASCAR.
It is doubtful that there is a team owner that wouldn’t want to hold a NASCAR Nextel Cup franchise. It would be gold! Owners would be almost assured profitability, as they would own one of maybe only 35 hoods that sponsors can display their product names on, knowing their expensive advertisement will actually be a part of race day television broadcasts.
And this sweet deal for the owners would only get sweeter. An owner desiring to leave the sport would then be able to sell his franchise at what would, it’s assumed, be a profitable price that would factor in the entire cost of the team’s assets. That’s quite an improvement from the non-competitive team owners that have had to, in years past, leave Cup racing in loads of debt, selling their equipment at fire-sale prices through an auction company.
Yes, franchising would undoubtedly be good for the present owners… but it would not be good for the future of the sport, let alone the fans. The truth of the matter is, NASCAR is better served to keep a level playing field for all that choose to compete rather than provide safety nets for teams whose competition levels drops below acceptable levels. The survival of teams and drivers should be based on their ability to function on the racetrack, not a piece of paper they hold off of it. Mediocrity should not be coddled; fans attending a racing event have a right to expect that the competition is fair, and that the best 43 cars and drivers are on the track for their viewing pleasure. Franchising would not always provide that, and that would make the race each weekend inherently unfair.
So, then, how do you fix qualifying? The risk of one or more marquee drivers not racing in an event due to a bad qualifying attempt is unacceptable to NASCAR. They understand that fans come to see their favorite drivers and expect them to race. To better assure inclusion of the top drivers and past champions in the starting field each week, the sanctioning organization devised a provisional starting system. This was understandable… but then, they went too far and also devised what is, in essence, a provisional system for 35 competitors, not just four to seven at every event on the schedule. Think about that for a second… 35. Just how many essential drivers and teams does NASCAR have? Certainly, it’s not that many.
There is an answer to all this madness. Qualifying races! Replace the present wasted day of qualifying in which only eight positions in the field are up for grabs (as 35 spots are set) and require everyone to race their way into the field. The details can be worked out… but the framework is pretty fundamental. Divide the number of entrants into two equal numbers and let them go at it on the track for a predetermined number of laps with the top, say, 18 finishers advancing to the big show from each race.
Then, to make every effort to assure that the best competitors that weekend will make the field, allow those that have yet to qualify for the race to compete in a “last chance” race of roughly the same distance as the previous two events. At the end of these races, the field would be set, and if a marquee driver failed to make the field, his or her fans would just have to understand that it just wasn’t their driver’s weekend. However, they got to see their favorite driver race, twice… so the trip wouldn’t be a total wash.
Ridiculous? I don’t think so. There would certainly have to be a lot of juggling of race schedules to accommodate it; there would be no need or time for an accompanying series at the same track, such as the Busch Series or the Craftsman Truck Series. Nextel Cup Series qualifying would now become an event unto itself… and boy, what a show it would become!
With qualifying taking up Cup Fridays and Saturdays, the Busch Series and Craftsman Trucks could then run combined weekend events at other venues, giving tracks now pleading for race dates some much needed relief. Not only that, but they could possibly partner separately with ARCA and the IRL to allow for even more tracks to have highly desired race weekends.
When one considers the positives for creating starting fields through on-track performances rather than legally binding franchise agreements or owner protection rules, I believe the preference of the fans would be easy to predict. The “braintrust” of NASCAR can solve their puzzle of how to best establish starting fields for a race by simply visiting any one of the hundreds upon hundreds of local stock car races throughout America. That’s where qualifying races are held successfully all the time… and hopefully, they’ll end up at a Nextel Cup track near you one day. You see, mediocrity can only be protected for so long.