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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Buying A Super Bowl Spot, Tweaking The Shootout And Quick Hits

*Did You Notice?…* The Bud Shootout has lost its sense of importance? It’s a topic beaten to death the last couple of years, but retaining steam after the latest, 2012 rule change allowed entry to the top 25 finishers in last year’s driver points. That means we’re going to have the majority of this year’s “locked in” Daytona 500 field, plus one or two “randoms” (Michael Waltrip, for one) that will combine for a bloated, 75-lap, increase-their-advantage test session prior to next week’s Great American Race.

I know, I know; the conflict with Coors, who sponsors NASCAR’s pole award makes it impossible to associate this race with qualifying speeds anymore. In the past, though, this event was a true sprint, just 20 laps and had a small enough starting grid (the past year’s polesitters and previous Shootout winners only) it stood out as an exemplary exhibition. Now? Drivers like Jeff Burton, who will tell you himself last year was a nightmare NASCAR season not worth living are getting the gift of entry as if those stats were special.

Certainly, there’s going to be an exciting finish, along with plenty of storylines to watch for the 500 we’ll see begin to unfold under the lights this Saturday night. But NASCAR would have a better race on their hands if they A) shortened up the distance and B) tightened the restrictions on who participates. My latest idea is to put the top 12 Chasers, plus last year’s Cup Series winners in the field. That would cap the number at 18. Still want to spice it up a bit? Add former Daytona 500 winners and Michael Waltrip (19), Trevor Bayne (who wouldn’t run it anyway) and Jamie McMurray (20) make the list. That’s it.

To me, a good season-opening exhibition should be country club-style inclusive, along with a length short enough so A) drivers treat it like an edge-of-your-seat race, not a test and B) fans are left wanting more. Somehow, with the bizarre reincarnations of the Shootout these last few seasons we’ve lost those basic principles.

*Did You Notice?…* New team and driver combinations coming out of the woodwork just days before the start of Speedweeks? Why, just yesterday David Reutimann was named as driver of BK Racing’s No. 93 Toyota, a teammate to Landon Cassill as the two-car organization attempts this year’s 500 as a prelude to a full season of competition.

I think it’s a great opportunity for both drivers, a solid boost for NASCAR to have new ownership increasing their presence in the sport. (Although I do have questions; how does a minority owner of the former TRG No. 71, whose money was never good enough at times to do more than start-and-park expect to suddenly run a two-car team at a high level? I hope Burger King will really be putting money into this program). Regardless, my major problem with this arrangement concerns how both men are now locked inside this year’s Daytona 500. That’s right; two weeks ago, they were on the sidelines and now both qualify for NASCAR’s Super Bowl without lifting a finger.

Neither one of the drivers are to blame for the rules… but that doesn’t mean it’s fair. This practice is the latest sign of how buying owner points – and, thus a ride into the sport’s biggest race – have gotten out of control. Danica Patrick remains the most notable beneficiary, in the 500 for free after a deal Stewart-Haas made to acquire owner points from Tommy Baldwin Racing… and she’s never even run a single lap in a Sprint Cup race!

In keeping this practice, NASCAR assures that certain sponsors and drivers (cough, Danica, cough) will make their season-opening race. But considering the equipment and the competition Patrick would have, chances are good she would have made the field without the extra assistance. Now, that sense of long-term security costs NASCAR some short-term storylines early during 500 week, because there’s no question Patrick will be _somewhere_ within the 43-car starting lineup. Why write about drama when there isn’t any? The “free gift” of being handed a spot on the grid also contributes to a lack of publicity surrounding a guy like Reutimann. Without a “locked in” position, there would be plenty of fanfare as Danica’s right-hand man if he muscled this Toyota into the field. Now, unless the No. 93 runs top-3 in the Gatorade Duels, his presence will most likely, for all intents and purposes, go largely unnoticed until the 500 (if then).

Other than golf, perhaps, it’s a practice we never see in any other major sport, their playoff results earned through on-field competition. Could you imagine if the Packers’ 15-1 regular season NFL record “locked them in” to the Super Bowl? Or if a team could buy a spot in the playoffs? It wouldn’t be tolerated.

So why do we do it in NASCAR? Giving drivers free passes dilutes the entire process of getting to the Super Bowl in the first place. Inclusion in those types of events should be earned, not bought through money; even if you offer 35 “locked in” spots for the other 35 races each season, don’t giftwrap them for the Great American Race. Otherwise, why have these 150-mile, Gatorade Duels when so many are already part of the starting lineup? Especially with plate racing, it doesn’t matter where you start… just that you make the field in the first place. I wonder, would Bill France, Sr. or Jr. have ever guessed that in 2012, the key to accomplishing that would be wheeling and dealing off the track – not on it?

*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before we take off…

– Yes, his reputation was damaged with that bumper car, boiling-over faceoff with Matt Kenseth last Fall. But I would never have guessed that when they finally stopped the music, it was Brian Vickers, not an average journeyman driver, who would be sitting without a Sprint Cup ride come Speedweeks. No offense to Kvapil, Cassill, or Gilliland but last time I checked, that man had been to Victory Lane twice and spent five years building a middle-class program to maximum effectiveness. I guess it goes to show you, though, how much sponsors monitor bad behavior these days, on and off the track.

– Is it just me, or have we not heard so much as a peep from NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver this offseason? I can’t remember the last time a news cycle was this dormant surrounding Dale Earnhardt, Jr. On the one hand, I think it’s a good thing for the media circus to finally leave him alone, providing focus for a 2012 season where stability, with Steve Letarte on the pit box should prove helpful. But considering the power of this man to boost NASCAR’s popularity, you’ve gotta believe there’s more than a few people anxious for him to return to the public eye and do _something_ newsworthy.

– No Daytona 500 winner has made the Chase since Kevin Harvick in 2007. So if you ’re looking for an underdog heading into Speedweeks? How about David Ragan, July’s Coke Zero 400 winner that’s driving a car with Front Row Motorsports that came up third in last year’s Great American Race with David Gilliland. Ragan 2011 victory also made him eligible for the Shootout, giving FRM some much-needed extra track time to adjust to NASCAR’s new mechanical rules.

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