Rain came in droves at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday, meaning that on-track activity was at a minimum. This means that qualifying for the truck and Cup teams couldn’t take place, and practice time for the two series was almost non-existent. The clouds parted midday, giving track crews time to dry the track and allow both the Truck Series and Cup Series to squeeze in some practice. Drizzle returned, however, meaning that both series’ qualifying sessions and the evening’s late model quarter-mile track race were all canceled.
Friday marked the third consecutive race and the 10th time this season that Sprint Cup qualifying had been rained out and the starting field has been set by owner points. With that in mind, many fans and the media have wondered aloud about the ramifications of NASCAR’s deciding never to move qualifying to another day. Why can’t NASCAR stage qualifying, if weather permits, on Saturday instead of canceling it on a rainy Friday? How are teams outside the Top 35 supposed to have a fair shot at qualifying for the race if some are simply sent home after a rainout? How can rookies who are trying to gain seat time in Cup and get certified to run in the series supposed to do that if qualifying gets rained out? If part-time teams are sent home after qualifying, how can they gain the traction to run well, attract sponsorship and graduate to running a full-time competitive schedule? Several Sprint Cup drivers took some time during the Friday rains to address the issue.
Joey Logano, who ended up going home with the No. 02 Joe Gibbs Racing team due to Friday’s qualifying rainout, is hesitant to say whether or not NASCAR needs to tweak its qualifying rainout rules.
“I wish there was one today,” he said after being shut out of the starting lineup. “That’s not my call. I haven’t been there long enough to really say what I think should happen. I really don’t know. I’ve only ran a few races over here, so that’s not my call. That’s NASCAR’s decision.”
Logano probably made a wise decision not to press NASCAR to make any changes, considering his lack of Sprint Cup seat time. However, a lack of seat time could jeopardize his chances at starting the Daytona 500 at the beginning of next season. Logano needs to run a 1.5-mile or more racetrack in Cup before he is certified to run at Daytona. Two weeks ago in Charlotte, he would have done just that as part of a trio including Bryan Clauson and Brad Keselowski that were attempting their Sprint Cup debuts on a “cookie cutter.” All may have had a shot at qualifying for the race, but Mother Nature had other plans and the result was each of the three teams having to head home.
On Friday, Logano said that if his team cannot qualify at Atlanta, the home of his sponsor Home Depot, then they will have to try and qualify at either the Texas or Homestead races in the next few weeks. If that does not happen, then we may see someone else in the No. 20 for the Great American Race in 2009.
How could someone driving for one of the series’ best teams be shut out time and again? But the math is really not that simple as to why Logano did not make a race Sunday. Logano attempted to qualify the No. 02 at Atlanta, and this season, that car has only attempted a couple of other races. When time trials get rained out, the Top 35 in owner points are lined up first through 35th. The next positions are reserved for any past Cup champion that is not in the Top 35. Then, spots are reserved for any driver that won a race the previous season. The remaining positions in the field are given to teams based on the number of races each has attempted, with tiebreakers broken by owner points. But since around 43 teams are running full schedules this season, part-time teams have little to no shot at making the big show as they haven’t attempted as many races.
The fate of small teams and rookies is not the only concern about canceling qualifying. No. 9 driver Kasey Kahne worries about how the race results can be affected.
“The way the points are, when qualifying gets rained out, that’s a big part of how the race finishes on Sundays,” he explains. “Because of that. I think there should be any way to do a quick qualifying – a one-lap run – on Saturday. I don’t know if you can do that. But I think it would be nice; it would help out a lot of the teams.”
Kahne brings up an interesting point about race results. Track position is very important at some racetracks; and if qualifying is rained out at Martinsville, a fast car that has to drive from the back of the pack is at a distinct disadvantage to the cars that are fast and start near or at the front. The top starter in a race also gets to pick the prime pit box, meaning they also have the best chance to gain track position on pit road. So, if the field is constantly set by owner points, then these teams get a distinct advantage in several areas that affect the race results.
Jeff Burton does not have a problem with the top teams having advantages, though. Currently fourth in the standings, he has an entirely different take on qualifying than Kahne.
“I think it’s way more important to get practice, go get ready for the race,” he explained. “I think that’s way more important. I do understand that if you’re 44th in points and you go home and didn’t get a chance to qualify, how you could not feel very good about that. On the other hand, I do believe, and this is kind of a hard-nosed stance on it, but I do believe that protecting the best 43 or 42 teams, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Burton not only thinks that the importance of practice trumps that of qualifying, but he believes that the top-43 teams essentially should be franchised.
“As all of you guys know, I’m in favor of having 43 teams, not 48, and I think that if you’re going to put people in a situation where they have limited time to get ready for qualifying, I think it’s more fair to take care of teams that try to attempt every race and are higher in points than others. So, I’m OK with letting it be done on Friday and if it doesn’t get done on Friday, then it’s over, because I think ultimately that takes care of the teams that have done the best job.”
If NASCAR teams are franchised, then the suspense for teams low in the owner points is eliminated on Friday. At the same time, Burton’s solution does not resolve how a rookie like Logano can get Cup seat time and get certified for plate races. Another consequence of Burton’s idea is that it creates an impenetrable barrier to entry for teams that wish to compete in the Cup Series. The franchising idea does mean that the resources, including sponsorship, that are split amongst the teams that knock each other in and out of qualifying will fully fund the top-43 cars.
Of course, any time spent to qualify could conceivably take away from practice during a rain situation; and Greg Biffle thinks that practice time is extremely important for teams.
“We can all sit and look at it and try to figure out a better way of doing it, but the reality is there really isn’t,” he claims. “We have so many hours that we’re gonna be able to get qualifying in, and it’s obvious that we cannot race a 500-mile race without having any practice, so that is the most important thing. We have got to have practice, otherwise, we’re not racing. So, we can either qualify or we can race and a lot of the fans and TV come to see a four-hour or a four-and-a-half hour race and not where everybody is gonna start on Sunday. Obviously, they’re both important, but there’s nothing we can do about the weather and qualifying.”
Biffle’s answer is one that many do not consider. The same people that complain about NASCAR’s qualifying rainout rules expect a great show for Sunday’s race. If an hour-and-a-half double Saturday practice cannot happen because of a rescheduled qualifying session and if Friday’s first practice gets rained out, then the only track time teams will have before Sunday’s green flag is their two-lap qualifying run. This means that drivers will not necessarily get to drive in cars that are adjusted to allow them to race each other more competitively. If a boring race occurs, the same detractors will not hesitate to throw NASCAR under the bus for not throwing a better race.
The point of this whole conversation is that people cannot have their cake and eat it, too. Though Burton seems extremely satisfied with the top teams staying up front, the suspense of qualifying often is erased under NASCAR’s current rain out protocol. But if practice time is lost because of qualifying, then race day could cause a few yawns. Kahne’s one-lap qualifying idea may be the best of the bunch, but don’t hold your breath; NASCAR has not hinted of being dissatisfied with the current qualifying system – so do not expect changes for 2009.