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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s the Call? Should The Daytona 500 Guarantee Starting Spots?

Welcome to this week’s edition of What’s the Call? Each week, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s big controversies. 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!

This Week’s Question: This year, 36 of the 43 spots in the Daytona 500 will be already “locked in,” due to owner points and the past champion’s provisional held by Dale Jarrett. Is it fair that so many cars are guaranteed spots in the field, or should the vast majority of drivers and teams have to qualify their way into the Great American Race?

It’s Called Racing – So Let Them Race In

D-N-Q. It’s the most dreaded three letters in the garage, and for good reason. Not qualifying for any race – let alone a race of the magnitude of the Daytona 500 – can be financially devastating for any NASCAR organization. The problem is, too much of the field attempting the Great American Race gets locked up before qualifying even begins. Under current NASCAR rules, the teams lucky enough to be in the Top 35 in owner points are guaranteed a spot in the starting field, no matter how fast or slow they are in qualifying. So is one past champion, should he need a spot; that’s regardless if he’s won a race this century or not. That leaves just seven spots to be had for all of the other teams who work just as hard all winter – maybe harder – than the ones who are already placed in the field.

For a race the magnitude of the Daytona 500, this rule is ridiculous; honestly, that word doesn’t even cover it. It’s grossly unfair, and nothing more than a gimmick to assure the fans of the “most popular” drivers that they will see their favorites on Sunday, no matter how off the pace they may be. Never mind that the other drivers have fans, too… fans who care just as much about their drivers as those lucky ones who never have to worry. They pay for seats; shouldn’t their drivers at least have an equal chance at making the field?

Qualifying for Daytona has such a unique format that the rule is even worse here than at the other 35 races. Every team that shows up has obligations to their sponsors and their fans – but the playing field is tilted past level before the haulers even arrive. For example, the Top-35 teams have the luxury of working on race setups from day one; the others, knowing that only a qualifying speed good enough for the front row will guarantee a spot, must risk everything at a desperate attempt at the pole. When they almost inevitably fall short of the mark, they’re immediately put behind the eight ball for the Gatorade Duels. In each of those races, you’ve then got upwards of a dozen drivers competing for just two – count ’em, two – spots in the starting field. With competition and parity and an all-time high, those aren’t the kind of odds I’d like to overcome in any circumstance.

Here’s the real deal. Locking in the Top 35 at Daytona – or any race – makes the whole season less exciting. If the fastest 43 cars got a spot every week, period, it would change the complexion of the garage every week. Not only would it at least tilt the playing field a couple of degrees toward level, but it would make the points race more exciting. How, you say? Points are not awarded for qualifying… but they are awarded for racing. Here’s a scenario for you. If the fastest 43 cars qualified every week, Jimmie Johnson would have missed the June Dover race (he still would have made the Daytona 500 on his finish in his Duel race). Had Johnson not raced, race winner Matt Kenseth would have gained, at minimum, 185 points. Johnson won the championship over Kenseth by 56 points. Do the math. (Yeah, I know, the Chase would have reset the points anyway, but this is a hypothetical!)

Then again, Johnson might’ve lucked out, because he wasn’t the only top-10 driver who might have missed a race without benefit of the Top-35 rule. Yes, it’s time for the Top-35 rule to go the way of the dinosaur. If real fans want better racing, this is an easy way to find it. In the long run, it would lead to fewer cars who squeak in and park it after five laps, content for last-place prize money; at the same time, smaller and newer teams would not be doomed from the start every week. Fans are going to watch races regardless of who does or does not qualify – why not make the top teams work for it and give the underdogs a chance, just like they have to at every local track in America. Now, that would lead to a real Great American Race! – Amy Henderson

Let’s Not Go Overboard

There seems to be quite a stir lately regarding the qualifying procedures for the Daytona 500. But ensuring that 35 of the 43 spots in the Great American Race are guaranteed to previous year’s Top 35 in owner points is not only fair… it should be expected. These are teams that showed up each and every weekend to every track in the country the year before, not just showing up to a few of the big-money races to barely qualify, only to park it 10 laps into the race because they can’t maintain the minimum speed.

Under the old Daytona 500 qualifying procedures before the Top-35 rule, if you were a little off in speed but got caught up in some part-timer’s wreck in the Duel, you very well could be sitting out for the biggest race on the planet… and your entire year is completely ruined. As will be the rest of my year, because I will then be forced to hear from everywhere every week about how “(insert big team’s name here) missed the Daytona 500.” Jarrett and Robby Gordon don’t need that, and I don’t either. Besides, look how much the sponsors of these teams contribute to the sport. Let’s face it, this is a new era of competition, and things are a lot different than they were even a few years ago when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was carving No. 3s into Bill France’s nicely manicured lawn along the frontstretch. The sponsors of these teams that run all year long like UPS contribute greatly to the promotion and growth of the sport, and their effort deserves some consideration. As irritating as the commercialization of the sport can get sometimes, let’s remember why we’re watching it for free and not on pay-per-view. It’s 43 billboards going around in a circle… the whole thing has always been a commercial. Those commercials can’t run if their car isn’t on the track in the biggest race of the year.

There is also some consternation over the new Michael Waltrip Racing operation being guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500 by way of Jarrett’s past champion’s provisional. The rule, which was originally instituted to help Richard Petty, and later Darrell Waltrip, in the twilight of their careers, will no doubt benefit Jarrett and the No. 44 UPS team, as MWR appears to be struggling getting their cars up to speed. However, Jarrett has accomplished quite a bit in our sport, winning the Daytona 500 three times, the Brickyard 400 twice and a Winston Cup championship in 1999. Is it too much to ask that he and his fanbase be slightly acknowledged by possibly partaking of a rule that has been in place for quite some time?

I can understand and appreciate the argument against the guaranteed spots: it’s stock car racing, and it should be about pure competition. This is different than most sports, as most everyone knows; our Super Bowl is the first race of the year, and everyone should have a shot at qualifying for it. Well, fine. If you’re not locked in, qualify in the top two spots and you still do have a shot at it. Those other 35 teams earned the right to breathe easy by succeeding LAST season to ensure some security for the first five races of 2007. Whether it’s a new team or one that struggled last season, they all had an entire offseason to get their car fast enough to make the field. In the past champion’s provisional case… to the victor go the spoils. These guys who are using the champion’s provisional are past WINSTON Cup champions. Their championships were championships that stood for something grand; kicking ass for 10 straight months, not 10 weeks.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate the efforts of privateers and underfunded teams. It’s inspiring to see the likes of Kirk Shelmerdine and Carl Long compete in the biggest race of the year, running well and receiving a nice-sized check to boot. The Daytona 500 used to be a place for smaller teams to compete and have a shot at it. Remember Mike Wallace and Kevin Lepage‘s strong runs in recent years, with upstart teams? It IS a restrictor-plate race; hang around in the back long enough to avoid the junkyard, and you’ll probably be in position for a top 15. Well, as much as I miss the old days, these are the new days. We don’t run a year-long cumulative points battle anymore, we only go to Darlington once in the spring, and North Wilkesboro is home now to only woodchucks, termites and broken asphalt. It’s just part of what the new days are all about; the top teams that consistently support the series and make it work should now be guaranteed to make the biggest event of the year. – Vito Pugliese