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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Rule Changes & Missed Opportunities

If NASCAR’s offseason rule changes are any indication – in addition to Brian France’s preseason quotes – it appears that the sanctioning body is satisfied with how they are currently operating the Sprint Cup Series.

But was that the right stance to take?

There were no dramatic changes in the point system for the Championship Chase format, nor was there much relief for teams outside the Top 35 that are disadvantaged in qualifying for races. It seems that the rules committee did not deem it necessary to look at further tightening the championship provisional rules, or curbing the increasingly commonplace practice of “team orders” being given to manipulate the final race results. These issues, among others which surfaced during the 2007 race season, seemed in need of more than a passing glance. That’s not to say that the powers that be sat idle in the offseason; however, they seem to have fallen short on some of the rule changes they did make.

The most glaring omission appears to be qualifying. The 2007 season saw numerous examples of underfunded, perennial “also rans” being granted a bye on Fridays, allowed to compete on race day despite continuing to run at the back of the pack. Nonetheless, these subpar teams were able to accumulate enough race points to maintain their barely Top-35 status for another week. In the meantime, well-funded (and not so well-funded) startup teams were sent home despite better qualifying efforts. It is understandable that NASCAR would want to assure that the stars of the sport are not absent from the race lineup – but do they really have 35 irreplaceable teams?

A lower cap of 20-25 protected cars would have been a compromise that would have scratched everyone’s itch sufficiently, and in the process created another 10-15 opportunities to participate on race day to those deserving teams and sponsors that are attempting to gain entry into the nation’s most popular automobile racing series. NASCAR could have at least leveled the playing field some, but they didn’t.

In a sense, it could be argued that the Top-35 rule was addressed, as a change was adopted that will have all teams outside it qualify as a group at the end of the qualifying session. This new procedure is, in fact, fairer to the competitors vying for one of the few non-guaranteed starting spots, in that the disadvantaged group will at least compete on a level playing field with near-identical track conditions. But the greater issue is why are so many mediocre teams or teams with a “rent-a-past-champion” in the seat of their car being given immunity and allowed to race when other teams – even though they’re faster in qualifying – are not permitted to compete?

That past champion’s provisional is a rule that needed further consideration due to NASCAR’s reluctance to modify the Top-35 rule. The rule, which allows one provisional position (43rd) to the most recent past champion should he fail to qualify on time, has been bastardized far from its original purpose when implemented. It was understandable that NASCAR would – after Richard Petty failed to qualify for the 1989 spring race at Richmond – seek a remedy to protect their biggest names. However, in recent years the rule has a created a loophole for teams desperate to sidestep the Top 35. In such instances, these teams hire past champions, sometimes out of retirement or in their declining years, only to take advantage of their “free passes” into the race field. It’s a fact that is hardly conducive to fair and open competition; instead, the practice has created a new “have provisional, will travel” cottage industry for drivers that otherwise would be watching Cup racing from the comfort of their La-Z-Boy recliners.

The issue was muddied further in December with NASCAR’s approval of a Penske Racing scheme that allows Sam Hornish Jr. take the 2007 owner points from the No. 2 Penske Dodge driven last year by Kurt Busch. The move guarantees Hornish, who will be contending for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors, a place in the race day lineup by virtue of his team’s Top-35 status. It’s a great gift for Hornish, who failed to qualify for six of eight races last season… but what about Busch? He’s still in great shape, capable of using his six past champion’s provisionals if needed – and virtually assuring that he will never fall out of the Top 35.

NEFF: PENSKE PREPARING FOR PAST CHAMP’S PROVISIONAL SCAM

Here again, NASCAR should and could have moved to a compromise that would have seen the provision used more closely to the purpose intended. What I don’t understand is that for the 2007 season, they had reduced the number of provisional starts in the Busch and Craftsman Truck Series to one provisional every eight races. It is inexplicable to me that they chose to do nothing to extend this rule to Cup, when that’s the series in which the provisional was being used the most. Instead, the number of allowable provisions was lowered to six before the 2007 Cup season – and there it stays for 2008.

Another missed opportunity by NASCAR – although it was of no big surprise – was their decision to take no stance on the ever-increasing use of team orders. That’s a problem, as the practice is bound to become a big black eye eventually to the sport. With the rush by team owners to get to the four-team limit any way they can, it is imperative that NASCAR takes a firm position against owners having their drivers assist teammates by manipulating race results. It would have been prudent for them to take a position against the practice now instead of attempting “damage control” after a major public scandal involving result fixing hits the front page of the sports page. Think that won’t happen someday? Just ask Formula 1.

To the race organization’s credit, though, they were spot-on with a rule change that will now have the fines levied by NASCAR donated to charity instead of being deposited into the points fund, a past rule that clearly made no sense. Before, the moment the violator paid the fine they were immediately eligible to get some percentage of the money back at season’s end; now, that money will at least go to a worthier cause. But even with that change made, NASCAR has a lot of work to do on their penalty policy. Monetary fines – unless for an exorbitant sum amounting to millions – just are simply not enough of a deterrent to the wealthiest teams, yet prove disastrous for teams struggling financially. For particularly grievous and deliberate rules violations, I think the most effective and equitable punishment would be race suspension(s) for the entire guilty party, with progressively longer suspensions for teams that continue their errant ways. Of course, that’s easier said than done…

Other rule changes aimed at making pit road a safer place for crewmen now prohibit teams from rolling their tires back to the pit wall during pit stops, or pit crews from pushing their racecar more than three pit stalls. Those are steps in the right direction, certainly; still, I count myself among the many that support a rule prohibiting caution-flag pit stops to reduce the insanity that pit crews experience every time they step over the pit wall with up to 43 racecars coming down pit road. Such a rule change would have the bonus of more green-flag racing, as well.

In short, it’s not that NASCAR did nothing for 2008; they just didn’t do enough. These rule changes were not of the dramatic nature that fans have in the past experienced under the leadership of Brian France. Although none of the new rules adopted are expected to cause any great damage to the sport, they won’t do much to significantly improve NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

That’s the problem as I peek from high atop Turn 5.