While 43 race teams prepared their cars for Saturday’s last practice sessions and Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, what was happening to three other teams told an entirely different story. As race preparations began, the No. 90 Keyed-Up Motorsports entry driven by Casey Mears, the No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet driven by Johnny Sauter, and the No. 46 Dodge of Whitney Motorsports and driver Terry Cook were packed up and pushed onto their haulers for the long trip home, having qualified 44th-46th for 43 spots. It happens every week, and it’s never fun to watch. But the slowest cars have to go home, right?
The slowest cars didn’t leave Fontana. Mears, the fastest of the three drivers cut out of the field, was faster than five drivers who raced on Sunday, and would have made a field based on speed and not politics. So would Sauter and Cook, whose runs clocked in at 42nd and 43rd fastest on the day. But politics have shaped qualifying in a sport once shaped by speed, and it only continues to get uglier as time marches on.
There have been numerous changes to qualifying over the last dozen or so years, all catering more to the complaints of a few than to the good of the sport. In the mid-’90s, qualifying was a bit of a complicated process. On Friday, all entries made an attempt to qualify. The fastest 25 were locked into those positions. Anybody from 26th on back had a decision to make: stand on Friday’s time, or make a second attempt on Saturday. Any team choosing to make a second run would take Saturday’s first practice in qualifying trim, preparing for that qualifying attempt. Everyone else practiced in race trim.
The cars making a second run would slot in on speed from 26th on back. If the fastest car beat the pole speed, it still started 26th. What usually happened though, was that the cars making a second run slotted in around those who had stood on time. A driver who, in his second run, was slower than one who stood on time but faster than the next one would start between them. Positions from 39th to 43rd were provisional positions based on points and the past champion’s provisional, which was awarded first to the most recent champion.
But teams complained that this system was unfair to those who chose, or were forced by their first run, to requalify, because it robbed those teams of practice time in race trim, given that the locked in teams ran Saturday morning practice in race trim. So NASCAR changed it.
The next incarnation for the qualifying procedure implemented circa 2001, was simple enough: One round for the top 36 spots, and then provisionals awarded in the same manner as before-by points and past champion’s provisional. That way, the lineup was determined all at once, and everyone had equal practice time in race trim. But under this system, teams complained about the use of unlimited provisional starting spots, thus allowing teams to gain more points and therefore, more provisional spots.
So NASCAR limited the number of provisionals to six, with the opportunity to earn a handful more by attempting races all season. The complaint here was that teams would wait until many teams had exhausted their allotment and then make races on provisionals when they were clearly not good enough to make the field otherwise. In a final attempt to appease the latest group of complainers NASCAR devised the current system, locking in the Top 35 in owner points and making everyone else race for what has become only seven other positions, as teams use semi-retired champions to make the field in the 43rd spot, which remains the past champion’s provisional.
Now, nearly every week faster teams go home while slower teams race. It was especially pronounced at Talladega a few years back, where teams qualifying in the top 10 and top 20 were sent home while slower cars limped in based on past accomplishments. The system is still abused. Teams are allowed to use points that they buy at the end of the season, points the team or driver never earned-to make races over faster teams. This past week at Fontana, Mears outqualified three teams who bought the owner points they used to make the race over him. Sauter and Cook each outran two of those. Only Robby Gordon and Travis Kvapil’s teams actually earned the points they used to vault in over these three teams (while Kvapil did not drive the No. 34 in 2009, the team finished 35th with John Andretti behind the wheel). And that’s unacceptable.
In a sport based on speed, no team who relies on recycling somebody else’s points should be racing. Really, why should anyone be allowed to rest on their laurels and slide into the field based on something they did last week, or even last year? That’s not racing, that’s politics.
Compounding the problem was the cars who made the race and then promptly parked-that must have been a real comfort, particularly to Mears, whose team says that they will not start-and-park. It’s unfortunate that trying to accommodate a few teams’ complaints has turned into a joke. There are options, but does NASCAR want to hear them?
The best option for the sport would be to drop locked in positions completely. This is easily done-if NASCAR kept the past champion’s provisional and perhaps two “regular” provisionals based on points, the field would be set the way it should be – by the fastest cars this week. Not last week or last year, but right now.
But wait, it’s not quite that simple, you say. What if a top driver wrecks in qualifying? Should he go home? Well, yes. And no. So, to fix that, the simplest thing is to go back to the second round of qualifying. That’s right, with a few minor issues, NASCAR had it right 15 years ago, and only got this screwed up by their subsequent changes. But it would be easy to correct those issues. So, if the top 25 in qualifying lock in, and the others are forced to either stand on time or requalify, what about the complaints regarding practice time?
Easy enough. Simply have one half-hour practice before second round only for those teams who have relinquished their times to make a second attempt, and hold either two practices after the morning qualifying runs or one extended happy hour practice later. The practice issue is solved, and that way, one mistake during Friday’s run isn’t fatal.
And as for the worries that a top driver might still go home, this is racing, not little league soccer where everyone gets to play. If you can’t get the car fast enough to make the race after two attempts, you don’t deserve to race, whether your name is Johnson or Earnhardt, Mears or Sauter or Cook.
If NASCAR can’t see it clear to base the race on speed, they need to at least look at dropping the number of locked in teams drastically to ten or fifteen at the outside. From there on back, it should be go or go home. Also, the sanctioning body should not allow the transfer of points from one team to another – only the team that earns those points should benefit. If a team goes away, like the No. 44 at Richard Petty Motorsports or the No. 07 at Richard Childress Racing, those points should go away as well. The only possible exception to this should be if a team should choose to transfer those points to the driver’s new team, or, in an even bigger stretch, if the crew goes intact to a new team and wishes to negotiate for them. In other words, only the No. 90 should have even been considered to be eligible to buy the No. 07’s points, as Mears, not Regan Smith in the No. 78 who reaped the benefit, earned the points. But even that’s a gray area.
Racing is, and should be, a sport based on one thing-how fast a competitor can go on any given day. What he did last week, or last year, shouldn’t be a part of that equation. There shouldn’t be seven spots up for grabs, there should be at least 40, if not all 43. It’s about racing, and regardless of your name or the number of trophies on your shelf it should all come down to one thing. Go. Or go home.
And another thing…
I really can’t wait until the first Nationwide race Danica Patrick isn’t in. Better yet, is there a race on the schedule that will not feature Patrick OR Kyle Busch? That one might be worth watching, as the other drivers might actually get some airtime.
Fontana was almost a good race. It was same old, same old for much of the day. Kevin Harvick tried to make for a good finish, but got into the wall, allowing Jimmie Johnson to coast home with an easy lead. It was better than most Fontana races, though, which isn’t really saying that much.
Speaking of Fontana, there were a LOT of empty seats there… and that’s different from Rockingham was how, exactly? Oh that’s right, Rockingham had good racing for those of us watching on TV.
Finally, I think I’m going to give a shoutout each week to a driver who didn’t win the race but had a great day. This week, that’s Scott Speed, one of the drivers competing for those seven spots each week. Speed finished 11th at Auto Club Speedway, vaulting himself into 15th place in driver points – for those looking this early in the season, that’s ahead of such notables as four-time champ Jeff Gordon, two-time title winner Tony Stewart, or Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.