As water came pouring down on a freezing Friday at Daytona, Paul Menard was faced with a cold reality all his own. 49th in the qualifying draw, a rainout would mean an automatic DNQ for him under the NASCAR rulebook, shattering dreams of a title in the sport’s second-tier series before they even got off the ground. It was a bad break that would leave the best of men searching for answers.
Turns out they were right inside his wallet all along.
Menard’s No. 98 sneaked into the grid Friday not on speed, but through cold, hard cash, with car owner Jack Roush buying off five teams ahead of him to jump up to the 43rd starting spot. The move was an unprecedented display of money and power in the Nationwide Series, with Roush infusing several underfunded operations with engineering support, extra equipment or simply a handwritten check to ensure Menard’s presence on the grid.
Technically, this convoluted system will go down as a long list of withdrawals, moving the No. 98 up the ladder until it became eligible to start the race. Originally, with NASCAR’s decision to use qualifying draw to fill out the final 10 spots in the field, Menard’s number (49) left him ranked behind four cars who didn’t qualify under other circumstances: the No. 52 of Donnie Neuenberger, the No. 96 of Dennis Setzer, the No. 49 of Mark Green and the No. 42 of Parker Kligerman. For Menard to make the race, all had to pull out along with the No. 97 of Jeff Fuller, whose 32nd best position in the qualifying draw left him safely in the field in 34th.
Needless to say, the financial maneuvering opened eyes in the Nationwide garage. While no team would confirm the amount given to them by Roush, last place Saturday will win $45,585 – meaning there needed to be serious financial incentive for teams to bend. Add up the numbers, and you’re faced with a number approaching $225,000 in “support” promised in order for Roush to get his way.
Why did so many teams back down? Well, the answer’s as simple as the old adage, “Money talks.” Nationwide driver Brian Keselowski – who owns the No. 96 that withdrew – explains it’s not so easy for the poor to turn away free handouts.
”What they’re willing to offer, I need as much help as I can get to be competitive,” he said of Roush’s incentives. “Be it money, engineering support, whatever, they come around and offer it to people, and that’s their right. I needed some money; with the 10% paycut on the races, it’s looking pretty bleak to try to survive.”
Unfortunately for Keselowski, he was among four owners stuck between a rock and a hard place. If he refused the offer from Roush, Menard’s path to the race would be blocked, Fuller would remain in the field, and nothing would change – leaving the No. 96 still on the outside looking in anyway. So, with money tight he took the only avenue available to him: support from one of the sport’s most powerful people.
“I could have been a real prick about it,” he said. “But that’s not going to benefit me either way. I wasn’t going to make a dime. So, why would I do that? In the future, if people don’t like you now, it’s not a good thing. You need all the help you can get, and you don’t want to rub anybody the wrong way if you don’t have to.”
Others were less cheery about the situation, including Means Racing, whose car was fully sponsored by IHOP for the race. “This whole ordeal just screwed us up,” was all a crewman would say on the record, flailing his arms in frustration before returning to pack up their hauler – filling the drawers with car parts while emptying his dreams of watching their car take the green flag.
While many teams remained exasperated over the qualifying rules (“I really cannot believe that they look you in the eyes and tell you that the reason you’re not in this race, after you spent every single dime you possibly could, is because somebody drew a number,” said Keselowski about using the qualifying order to set the 43-car field) Roush’s bank account left nothing to chance. In a world where speed is supposed to separate contenders from pretenders, the deep pockets of the rich have given a whole new meaning to taking the green flag.
“It completely eliminates the legitimacy of what we’re doing,” says Keselowski of what transpired. “I just can’t believe we don’t even get a chance. Everyone should have an [equal] shot to make the race.”
Team 42 Racing (Kligerman), Jay Robinson Racing (Green) and NEMCO Motorsports (Fuller) were unavailable for comment. However, sources claim Fuller, the key to this deal, was designated to run his No. 97 just a few laps in the race, similar to how he parked NEMCO’s second Cup car in the Duels on Thursday in order to earn the team extra money.