On Tuesday, NASCAR revealed multiple changes to the sport that will affect both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series when they take effect come 2013. Most prominently, the sanctioning body announced the abolition of the top-35 rule for qualifying and new testing procedures.
Let’s waste no time and take a closer look at all three changes, one by one.
Most notable is the Sprint Cup Series’ new qualifying format. Well… new-ish. Actually, come to think of it, it’s not very new at all. Recycled is the better term.
Beginning in 2013, Sprint Cup fields will assume a 36-6-1 format. For the uninitiated, that means the field will be set by the 36 fastest drivers in time trials, plus six provisionals set by owners points standings and one spot for a past champion, which becomes another provisional if not used as such.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the format recalls NASCAR before the top-35 rule, which locked the top 35 teams in the owners standings into the race.
Prior to that rule, which was put into place when teams with sponsors expressed concern that said sponsors might leave their team if they weren’t guaranteed a spot and did not qualify (this, mind you, was back when 50-plus teams were showing up to the track), the fastest made it in, with a few provisionals around for drivers who either messed up or simply couldn’t find the speed.
The fastest qualify? It’s about damn time.
The top-35 rule was a regulation that benefited no one but the top- and mid-tier teams in the sport. It gave them essentially a free pass when it came to qualifying, rendering it positively useless unless one was either really interested in grabbing the pole position or needed to race his or her way in on time.
Just as NASCAR made winning a race more important in the past few years, it has now made qualifying more important to all drivers.
Think of it this way: yes, there’s six, maybe seven spots available if a funded organization cannot qualify for a given race. But — and I realize this is a fairly unlikely scenario — say the top 8 in owners points are the slowest and would be sent home if not for provisionals? Looks like eighth place in points isn’t going to be having too great a weekend.
But more realistically, the rule could spell disaster for some of the mid-tier teams that aren’t as high in points. This change isn’t going to worry many of the sport’s elite, but it will give some drivers more to think about come time trials.
Plus, this ensures that start-up teams that just so happen to have a fairly quick — at least in the top 36 — car at a given track have a chance to race rather than having to worry about competing with the other go-or-go-home organizations.
I still don’t think it’s perfect; I’d rather see the top 43 in time trials making the race and that’s final, though that doesn’t account for Mr. Championship Driver walling it on his qualifying lap. Ideally, something like two provisionals (and maybe a third for a past champion) would be more suitable. But what NASCAR’s implementing is better than its predecessor, so it’s a step up indeed.
According to NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition, Robin Pemberton, the top-25 and top-30 rules will remain in the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series, respectively. So if you’re a fan of the top-whatever in owners points getting a guaranteed spot, you still have those series on which to fall back.
Speaking of qualifying, NASCAR has decreed that time trials order will be set by a random draw. So no more will the slowest in practice begin qualifying and the fastest end it. It’s not a huge move, and quite frankly, I don’t care what the order is for qualifying anyway.
The other big announcement Tuesday concerned testing. Beginning in 2013, Sprint Cup Series teams will be allowed four tests per organization at tracks at which the series competes. Additionally, teams fielding a car for a Rookie of the Year contender will be allowed one more test for that driver. In the Nationwide and Truck series, teams will be allowed two tests per organization at these tracks, with the additional one for a declared rookie.
I can’t complain here — I don’t think anyone is, really. It was originally rumored that NASCAR would allow teams five to seven tests, but four (and five with rookies) is still a decent numeral. Doing so allows organizations to get a better handle on the new Sprint Cup cars, which will be introduced next year.
The ban was originally in place to cut team costs. It kind of put everyone on a more even playing field, though sheer budget and ability to test at non-NASCAR tracks have still kept the gap wide. That’s probably not going to change anytime soon, so I see no real problem with bringing back testing at these racetracks.
Finally — and I didn’t see this coming, did you? — the sport revealed the shortening of Nationwide Series fields starting in 2013. Instead of 43 cars, 40 entrants will start each Nationwide race (providing, of course, that 40 show up).
Shortening the Nationwide field could very well cut down on the amount of start-and-parking that has gone on in the series over the last few years — especially these days, with teams like The Motorsports Group and Rick Ware Racing often fielding multiple start-and-park entries.
If the 40-car field is meant to curb teams parking, I don’t think it’s going to do a great job of it. The current start-and-park organizations can still spout off a fast lap to get in, and if more teams begin showing up in the next few years, that’s potentially even more legitimate cars going home.
The move is in place to create a sense of urgency for teams to make races. But if some teams keep fielding cars on qualifying lap steroids for the sake of parking them three laps in, it’s going to force smaller teams by doing the same. Ideally, I’d love to see a scenario in which only a certain percentage of the field (maybe top 30) even get points or funds for showing up, but that would hurt a lot of teams as well. And a lot of them are scrambling for funds as is.
In other words, it’s going to take more than a shortened field to save the Nationwide Series. A lot more.
But all things considered, the moves NASCAR made Tuesday are, collectively, a step in the right direction, particularly when it comes to its new qualifying rules. It’s not going to make NASCAR a better sport altogether. But it’s good to see them trying.