Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) have found their debut as competitors in the Nextel Cup Series challenging, to say the least… but probably not entirely surprising. Two races into the 2007 season, the manufacturer has two drivers positioned in the coveted Top 35 in the points standings, namely Team Red Bull’s Brian Vickers (34th) and MWR driver Dale Jarrett (a more secure 28th). The Top-35 teams in owner points from 2006 are guaranteed a starting position in each of the first five Nextel Cup races of 2007. However, after the fifth race at Bristol in early March, inclusion on the Top-35 list will be based on the current season’s owner points. And at that time, the enormous value for MWR and Toyota of Jarrett’s much talked about defection from Robert Yates Racing at the end of 2006 will become clear for everyone to understand.
When Jarrett made the decision to join the MWR/Toyota team, he not only brought with him years of experience, as well as the lucrative UPS sponsorship, but he came with a golden ticket that all would benefit from, the past champion’s provisional. This rule gives the most recent past champion a free pass into races regardless of whether their qualifying time was fast enough to be race eligible. This rule, sometimes referred to as the “Richard Petty Rule” was established in 1990 in response to “The King,” arguably the most popular and successful driver in NASCAR history, failing to qualify for races during the 1989 season. Petty’s absence on race day was disappointing to many of the paying spectators and followers of the sport.
Jarrett, as the 1999 winner of the then-Winston Cup, is the first driver eligible for the use of the provisional, as all the series champions since 2000 are protected under the Top-35 provisional rule established in 2005. He’s wasted no time making use of this gift from NASCAR, then; he has failed to qualify for the first two races of the season on speed, but has taken the 43rd starting position compliments of his past champion’s provisional. In so doing, he has been able, mostly through an ability to finish races, though not particularly competitively, to now be resting in a fairly comfortable position within the Top 35. Jarrett is now all but locked into a Top-35 position following the Bristol race whether he qualifies on time or not in the next three races.
If readers do not feel that this is quite fair to other competitors that are required to qualify on time for races, or believe that this use of the champion’s provisional is a bastardization of the intent of the rule, join the club!
However, there is no reason to think negatively of MWR or Jarrett’s “have provisional, will travel” use of the rule; they did not set the precedent for provisional abuse. Last season, NASCAR’s highly respected 1984 and 1996 Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte demonstrated the worth of the provisional when he allowed upstart team Hall of Fame (HoF) Racing to exploit his past champion’s privilege. Labonte’s “rental” of his champion’s status was actually more blatant and premeditated than what Jarrett has done. With no intention to ever race the full season for HOF, Labonte raced the first five races of the season, relying on his champion’s provisional at Daytona, California and Atlanta to put HOF into 30th place in the owner rankings and assuring the team a starting spot for coming events, thanks to the Top-35 rule.
HoF then allowed their designated “regular” driver Tony Raines to drive the remainder of the season, with the exception of the road course at Sonoma, Calif. Again, HoF used Labonte, not for his golden pass as a past champion, but for his expertise on road courses. As the race unfolded, using “Texas” Terry for the road course probably became a wise decision, as he finished a much-needed third in the race. By season’s end, HoF/Raines had persevered and finished 26th in owner points, making them safe for the first five races of 2007.
In a little talked about announcement, NASCAR modified the champion’s provisional rule in January to limit a past champion’s use of it to a maximum of six times during the course of a season. Previously, there were no limits on the number of times a driver could use the free pass. It is assumed that this change in policy by NASCAR was a result of both Labonte’s provisional leasing in 2005 and the anticipated use of it by Jarrett this season. However, the provisionals may be used consecutively if needed, still assuring Jarrett participation in the first five races of this season… and with one to spare, should he fall out of the Top 35.
Michael Waltrip‘s recruitment of Jarrett is possibly the best news that MWR or the Japanese auto manufacturer has had to date. With the other two MWR teams of Waltrip and David Reutimann qualifying against each other for one of the eight remaining starting positions week to week, as well as against most of the other Toyota teams, Jarrett is virtually assured to race beyond Bristol on a weekly basis. Only one other team, Bill Davis Racing’s No. 22 driven by Dave Blaney, is presently provisioned into the first five races. But Blaney is in jeopardy of losing that protection soon, as he currently stands 42nd in owner points after some awful luck to start out the year.
Whatever the cost of putting Jarrett in a new, developing race team, in cars powered by a manufacturer having no previous NASCAR Cup experience, it was without a doubt the best money that has been spent on the project so far. With the aid of his past champion provisionals, Jarrett is the most valuable asset either Toyota or MWR presently has. With untold millions of dollars spent by MWR and the No. 1 selling automobile manufacturer to put a new brand on the track, Jarrett is the best insurance they have that their investments will not result in complete disappointment.
There is very little doubt that in time, other Toyota teams will race themselves into the Top 35. Blaney may very well pick up his pace and continue to keep his team under the protection of the Top-35 rule; Waltrip should, with Toyota support, eventually put himself or the solidly-skilled rookie Reutimann in contention soon, as well. Additionally, Team Red Bull can be hopeful that their experienced Cup driver Vickers will, before season’s end start consistently making races and accumulating owner points. But for now, Jarrett is the brightest ray of hope.
That hope is yet another signal to change a rule filled with more loopholes than ever before. NASCAR’s revision of the past champion provisional, though significant, really did nothing to discourage a past champion from selling his qualifying exempt status to the highest bidder. The advantage of being assured a spot in the first five races increases a team’s chance of remaining in the Top 35 immeasurably, and puts other start-up, non-protected teams at a huge disadvantage. Whether the sport likes it or not, this rule clearly needs further modification.
But for the foreseeable future, it is can be assumed that Dale Jarrett will have no problems with getting free oil changes at the Toyota dealership nearest his home.