Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side By Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. 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!
Today’s Question: With the Daytona 500 the equivalent to NASCAR’s “Super Bowl,” should they automatically save a spot for a former champion who can’t qualify into the field any other way? Or should the rule be relaxed and another, faster driver installed in their place?
Drivers Earn Automatic Exemption
by Tom Bowles
Terry Labonte. Bill Elliott. Tony Stewart. Those are three names burned into the heart of NASCAR fans — and rightfully so. With five titles and over 75 victories between them, they’ve accomplished more than they ever would have believed in this sport.
And that’s why one of them deserves a special exemption for races if needed.
Yeah, being the “champion” can sometimes rob a spot from someone else in the field more deserving on speed. This year, that’s the case more than ever, as “Texas Terry” will likely take the 43rd and final spot with a team that’s woefully off the pace. That can be frustrating to several others who have the speed to outperform him on the track; but Labonte’s past record likely beats any of the men he pushes to the sidelines.
Yes, I also understand how badly the ridiculous qualifying rules for Daytona are set up — that with a championship provisional, only seven spots are available for a new team trying to sneak into the race. But it’s not the champ’s fault the Top-35 rule exists — and a champion’s provisional rule has been in effect long before that was a thought in anyone’s head. Among those who have taken advantage of it in the past to make this race are Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace.
And NASCAR isn’t the only sport where they reserve some spots in the field for past champions. Think of the Masters in golf. It’d be one thing if five or six of these spots were going away … but it’s only one. And the hard truth is, which driver would drivers want to see — a guy Labonte knocks out like Joe Nemechek, or Texas Terry himself?
I’ll let you answer that question. The Top-35 rule has potential to handicap competition… but the champion’s provisional is just one spot out of 43.
The Past Champion’s Provisional Needs To Go
by Bryan Davis Keith
The past champion’s provisional is far from a fixture in the long history of NASCAR. It is nothing more than a convoluted rule created in a knee-jerk reaction by the sanctioning body after the King himself, seven-time champion Richard Petty, failed to qualify for a race at Richmond in 1989. Yet, thanks to the rule’s constant exploitation over the last decade, it has become one of the most significant provisions in the mythological NASCAR rulebook.
And come Daytona 500 time that significance becomes all the more amplified. Need proof? It is the reason that the besieged Wood Brothers Racing team has for the last three seasons hinged their operation’s future on a semi-retired driver who has none. And it is the reason that Stewart’s new Stewart-Haas Racing operation was absent from the owner point swap meets that dominated the Cup Series’ offseason rumor mill.
Granted, if Elliott had to fall back on the champion’s provisional to lock the Wood Brothers into the Daytona 500 or Stewart needed it to secure his new team a spot in the field, there are likely not that many fans that would cry foul. But don’t let these feel-good stories cloud you. The past champion’s provisional has become far too powerful a force for teams trying to crack the most storied field NASCAR to offer. And with the Top-35 rule making qualifying all the harder for the smaller teams, it’s time for it to go. To make my point, I’m going to use an example from this year’s entry list, the No. 66 Prism Motorsports Toyota with Labonte behind the wheel.
First and foremost, the past champion’s provisional accounts in no way for a team’s attempt record, standing or performance level. Prism Motorsports and the No. 66 are in simply because they signed Labonte to drive. Never mind that they have never attempted a race prior to this season. Never mind that there are teams currently outside the 500 field, such as Richard Petty Motorsports’s No. 44 team and Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78, that ran the full 2008 schedule and yet find themselves in the same boat as Norm Benning and Kirk Shelmerdine. And never mind that they are an off-shoot of the MSRP Motorsports operation whose start-and-park efforts made nothing short of a mockery of the Nationwide Series last season. Having Labonte in the 500 field in this fashion is an exploitation of the provisional rule, not the purpose of it.
Mind you, Prism Motorsports is not the first team to exploit the past champion’s rule in this fashion. In the Nationwide Series ranks, Steve Grissom used the provisional 15 times in 2005 to keep Jay Robinson Racing’s No. 49 Advil car on the track. Last year, Grissom took the 43rd spot in the Nationwide Series’ opening race with the provisional and proceeded to run only three laps before parking his car while four full-time Nationwide teams were sent home.
Further, now that the Top-35 rule is in place to protect NASCAR’s future franchises, err, Cup mega-teams, from the embarrassment of being sent home by a feisty underdog, the past champion’s provisional is just another barrier for new and underdog racers to get a shot at the big-time. Thanks to Prism Motorsports having Labonte’s provisional, 39 of the 43 starters for the Daytona 500 have been determined with the Duel races yet to be run. Thursday’s races are going to rival the Indianapolis 500’s Bump Day in terms of insignificance.
This problem is compounded by the fact that a lot of the teams trying to crack the Cup ranks couldn’t sign a Labonte or any past champion if they wanted to. Do you think a Cup champion would have raised an eyebrow if Mike Garvey or Shelmerdine had come calling with a shoe-string budget and a dream to contest the full Cup schedule? Prism Motorsports didn’t get Labonte behind the wheel because of brilliant marketing, they did because they have influential Phil Parsons as a part-owner. The same holds true for how the Wood Brothers have gotten Elliott out of retirement for years now, or how Michael Waltrip got Labonte and his No. 55 NAPA machine into road-course races and the Brickyard 400 during his struggles in 2007.
The way that the past champion’s provisional is being manipulated these days amounts to little more than protectionism of the haves by the haves. And that’s not acceptable for the Daytona 500. In addition to being one of the most renown races run anywhere in the world, it is also an essential stepping stone for any team trying to contest the Cup series. It offers needed owner points, a substantial purse and a marketable platform to entice sponsorship. And because Prism Motorsports has the influence, and thus ability, to get Labonte behind the wheel of their Toyota for this one race, they’re going to have a leg up. Whether they earn it in the Duels or not, they’ll be ahead of up to 13 other teams who won’t race this Sunday and will be starting again from square one come Fontana (where I’ll bet the Prism car will revert back to the start-and-park approach of its MSRP Motorsports brethren.)
With three-quarters of the field fixed any given Sunday, allowing yet another car a means to qualify without performing on the track is unacceptable. Let’s not kid ourselves, the past champion’s provisional is no longer a valued means to give the fans another chance to see a storied driver. It’s a tool, an exploitation, a blemish on the title of NASCAR champion.
Let’s send it with where Prism Motorsports will likely be for the much of the 2009 season… parking.