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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Owner Points Systems Convoluting, Confounding Speedweeks

For all the hubbub surrounding NASCAR’s well-publicized rule changes heading into 2010 – be it about the larger restrictor plates or the new commitment to letting the drivers be themselves – there is one existing rule that’s had a larger impact on the racing so far than any of the new ones.

Yes, the Top 25/30/35 rule, depending on what Series is being referred to, is still having a big-time impact on the week’s events, both on and off the racetrack. And that impact hasn’t been pretty.

Just look at Front Row Motorsports, who had all three of their cars in the first Duel race… and had all three of them all but ride in the back of the field to stay out of the wrecks and keep their car in one piece. Just look at Travis Kvapil and the No. 37 team; to make sure they didn’t end up close to the front of the field, they came in and put scuffed tires on their car that they didn’t need… just to ensure that they’d have no track position. In the same stable, Robert Richardson‘s team was planning even before the race to experiment with different types of pit entry as the race allowed.

And then there’s Boris Said, who joined Jeff Fuller as the only driver to start-and-park during a Duel race. The team is on a tight budget, but because Jack Roush had to dump a car number, they were able to all but skip the Duels and wait for Sunday – comforted by the Top-35 position that locked them in.

All of these maneuvers make good practice and business sense; but really, is that good for racing? To have 35 of 43 positions in the field locked-in, using the Duels not as a race to win and compete as much as an event they’ve got to survive and get out of? Look, Thursday’s racing action was solid, and the battle that Max Papis and Todd Bodine waged in the first Duel race was as intense as they come – but seriously? How much better, how much more significant, more intense could these Duels be without that cushion for so many? These races, as entertaining as they are, could and should be the the most nail-biting, stressful ones of the season. Why shouldn’t racing for a spot in the Daytona 500 field be the most agonizing, nerve-wracking experience a driver and team endure?

Well, all the Top-35 rule has managed to do is take the on-track action of the Duels and make it significant for only a fraction of the field. And that doesn’t even compare to what the Top-30 rule is going to do to the Nationwide Series in their season-opening race.

With qualifying rained out, it was off to the rulebook to set the field for the 300-miler. And here was yet another example of a convoluted, knee-jerk rule created to “save sponsors” because Scott Riggs and Scott Wimmer (and their respective Valvoline and Caterpillar sponsorships) missed the fall race at Atlanta in 2004, taking the ability to qualify for races off the racetrack.

According to the Nationwide Series rulebook, after the reigning champion, previous year race winners and the past champion’s provisional are accounted for, the following clauses are in place regarding setting the field in case of a rainout:

“For the first 5 Championship Events of the season, the next available starting position(s), if any, will be assigned in order to the highest 30 cars of the current calendar year car owner point standings in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, provided the car was entered in the event prior to the entry deadline…”

“The next available starting positions, if any, will be assigned to car owners who have made the most number of qualifying attempts during the calendar year, with the car licensed by the car owner during current calendar years, in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, provided the car was entered in the Event prior to the entry deadline. The current calendar year car owner point standings in the NASCAR Nationwide Series shall prevail. In case of ties, ties will be broken by the current calendar year owner point standings, as set forth in sub-section 17-4, C.1.”

Where these rules got sticky this Friday was with regard to the “calendar year” verbiage. NASCAR, rather than setting the 43-car field for the Nationwide Series race based on owner points accrued for 2009, decided to move for a rules clause that is listed after taking into account owner standings and attempts – using the qualifying order to set positions in the field instead.

That’s right. In a decision that a number of Nationwide Series teams were not even told until Friday morning (the day qualifying was scheduled for), NASCAR chose instead of using the previous season’s owner points to set the whole field based on qualifying draw alone. Why? Because since the rulebook says “calendar year,” the sport argues that no one has any points in 2010.

And why should NASCAR not make that call? The top 43 in the qualifying draw already included all the cars eligible for previous year winners and champions’ provisionals. More importantly, because NASCAR rules now mandate that the top-30 cars be drawn in positions 1-30 in the qualifying draw, there was no risk of any of the major stars missing the race… even with a “random” draw. It’s a win-win situation for them.

But, as always, the losers are a wide lineup of Nationwide Series operations stuck with the check of hauling their stuff down to Daytona, buying tires and running practice thinking that they’d at least get a shot to race their way into the field – and, in the case of the weather, to have their fates decided by their performance in the past season, their performance on the track.

Think again. Now, thanks to NASCAR’s reversion to a completely random selection pool based on nothing (except putting the top-30 cars in position 1-30), teams that attempted the majority, if not entirety, of the Nationwide Series schedule, including ML Motorsports’ No. 70 team, Means Racing’s No. 52 team (which is fully sponsored for the weekend), and JD Motorsports’ No. 0 car are going home in favor of teams such as Corrie Stott’s No. 02 car (12 attempts) and the new No. 48 (no attempts) who will start on Saturday.

That’s yet another double standard created by the Top-30 rule. If a team is in the Top 30, their 2009 points mean something, even in 2010. Positions 31-43? Forget about it.

Nationwide Series regular teams are getting sent home because of a random number draw. Sprint Cup drivers from small and big teams alike are riding out the Duels in the back of the field because they have nothing to race for.

NASCAR’s huge campaign about rules changes may well prove to be positive; but if Speedweeks so far is any indication, there’s plenty still on the books that’s going to keep this sport from “getting back to its roots.”

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