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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Qualifying Procedure in Desperate Need of Overhaul

With all of the hullabaloo from the Carl Edwards/Brad Keselowski fallout dominating the headlines and people’s thoughts since Sunday, the main theme dominating the headlines has been the action – or rather inaction taken by NASCAR in regards to disciplining an aggressive driver.

Part of the explanation behind the sanctioning body electing not levying any sort of meaningful penalty against Edwards has been linked to their preseason mantra of leaving things in the drivers’ hands and for them to sort things out on the competition side among themselves. Regardless of where you come down on that issue, one area where the racing is clearly not in the drivers’ hands takes place before the green flag even falls on Sunday – qualifying.

As we head into one of the few off-weekends of the still young 2010 NASCAR season, it leaves us with one more race at Bristol for teams to fall back on 2009 owner points standings, meaning that the following week at Martinsville, the 2010 owner points will be in play. The Top 35 in points are guaranteed to make the race, and those who have been using last years owner points to make races are going to have to get in on time if they are 36th or lower.

If all of this sounds a bit contrived and convoluted, well, it’s because it is.

Take last weekend’s Kobalt Tools 500 in Atlanta for example. There were three drivers who failed to qualify for the event: Aric Almirola, Casey Mears and Terry Cook. These three drivers posted speeds that were 39th, 41st and 43rd respectively. There were three cars that were significantly slower that did make the race: Travis Kvapil, Kevin Conway and Boris Said, who qualified nearly 10 mph off the pace. In the case of Said, he was nearly one second slower than even the 39th fastest Almirola, whose team was forced to load up their No. 09 James Finch Chevrolet, and head for home. Kyle Busch in particular took note of this lack of performance during an encounter with Said during final practice on Saturday.

“Just guys that don’t belong out there,” said Busch. “He’s run off the pace at every single track that we’ve been to. He’s been the slowest car at the racetrack. He’s got owner points, so he gets to make the race because he bought his way into a car number from last year that had the owner’s points.”

Roush Fenway put together a “comprehensive services contract” with Said’s Latitude 43 Motorsports that promised the new team a guaranteed start in the season-opening Daytona 500 using the 2009 owner’s points from what was once Jamie McMurray’s No. 26 Roush Fenway Ford. In 2008, a similar arrangement was made transferring owner points from the No. 2 Penske Dodge of Kurt Busch over to the No. 77 of teammate Sam Hornish Jr., in an effort to help make sure Hornish Jr. qualified for all of the early races – including the Daytona 500.

That is not to cast aspersions on Said or Latitude 43 for simply taking advantage of a rule that exists. It isn’t as if he is a poor driver; after all, he has won poles at Daytona and Sonoma, and has instructed half of the field how to drive on a road course. However, being a second off the pace during qualifying and practice coupled with contact involving an established car highlights an area that desperately needs addressing.

Considering the state of the sport and the delicate economic situation that each team finds themselves in, now is not the time to create barriers to entry on the track. In a perfect world, the fastest 43 qualifiers would race every week. Don’t get me wrong – startup teams like Latitude 43 (revel in irony of the name) have every right to go out and compete for a starting spot in the race. That being said, qualifying nearly 10 mph off the pole speed should not entitle you to a guaranteed spot in the field, even if you’re just turning a lap to get a pit stall.

Now, I can appreciate the need for the sponsors who drive the sport and provide the funding to keep it running needing to have their cars out there. If there absolutely needs to be locked in starting spots in the field, fine. 20th place in driver points – not owner points – should be the cut-off, with a provisional for a past champion who has won that title within the last 10 years. You might as well get something for the effort. This will help prevent point swapping between teams, where simply having a number means there is points associated with it, as long as it meets an undefined criteria by NASCAR.

Another issue that needs to be revised is the qualifying procedure itself. Through the 1990s, there were always two rounds of qualifying; one on Friday and a second round on Saturday. This was scrapped in the interest of time spent at the track and trying to save teams money on tires and short-lived qualifying engines. With the one-engine rule in place now, and a camera crew capturing everything from game shows to hot dog vendors at the track during a race weekend, you might as well have something going on that is competitive, or at least throw the vendors a bone and attract some more people in the stands.

Back in the day, it was not uncommon to see a car qualified in 26th position on Saturday that would have turned in a top-10 time the day before. If you lock in the top 25 on Friday, and have a second round on Saturday to set the back half of the field, it gives the smaller teams two chances to get in the show, and if a front runner is struggling, to have another go at it the second day.

This practice would also eliminate the inconceivably frustrating event of qualifying being rained out and the field set by points. What good does it to haul a car and team to the track to practice all day on Friday, only to get to the last handful of cars and it starts raining? Everybody’s time, effort, and perhaps most importantly, limited financial resources become wasted. Teams who had worked so hard to prepare decent cars are forced to go home, simply because it got wet out. With two rounds of qualifying, there would be a second opportunity for everybody to post a time at least once.

As I repeatedly say, in this economic climate and with a sport that is struggling to attract new viewers and maintain the existing ones, getting back to racing’s roots is a great idea, so long as it does not stop at state-sanctioned demolition derbies. Allowing everybody a fair shot to get into the race is good for everybody involved; big teams, small teams, new teams and old, and for the health of the sport in general.

There is nothing that runs so contradictory to the nature and spirit of our sport than just being granted something arbitrarily. If we are going to continue to promote the throwback era during 2010, let’s work on brining back a fair and equitable qualifying system, that would attract new teams and sponsors who would welcome the chance to compete in our sport.