It’s that time of the season again, folks: the Daytona 500 is only three days away.
In keeping with tradition, NASCAR will run two Can-Am Duels tonight, which will set the starting lineup for the Great American Race. Chase Elliott and Matt Kenseth’s starting spots are already set due to their qualifying results, but spots in the rest of the 40-car field are up for grabs.
Or are they?
You see, with NASCAR’s new charter system implemented this month, 36 teams are already guaranteed a spot in the field. They might not know where they’re starting until tonight’s two races are over but they’re in. Another two spots are filled as well, with Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto putting up laps fast enough during last Sunday’s qualifying session to make the race.
That leaves just two spots available for the remainder of the open teams – smaller programs whose season largely hinges on whether they can make the Daytona 500 and prove to sponsors that it’s worth taking a shot on them.
The question needs to be asked, then – is the current qualifying format for the Daytona 500 fair? Is it right for so many teams to be locked in before the cars even hit the track?
No, It’s Not Fair
I love the tradition of Daytona. I love the whole idea of Speedweeks, the Unlimited, the Duels, the 500. The drama of seeing who is in the top 15 during a Thursday afternoon night Duel – and knowing those 15 would race come Sunday – was the highlight of the week between the Unlimited and the 500. It’s not so much anymore.
Why? Because the current charter system does away with that tradition and drama much like the old top-35 rule did. It’s no longer about who the best racers in the field are, but who brings the most amount of money to the race. Sure, there’ll be some drama tonight in each duel, but only one spot is up for grabs in each.
I get the idea of protecting an owner’s investment in the sport, and the charter system is a great way of helping established teams sell sponsorship and keep the financial ship afloat. But it doesn’t help the smaller teams just starting out. It doesn’t help the part-time teams that could run competitively but risk not making the show.
These smaller teams’ dreams can’t be fully realized if they don’t make the Daytona 500, and the Duels used to be the best way for them to punch their ticket. For, while the driver might not have had a fast enough car in qualifying, in the draft he has a shot at working his way forward. In years past, he could place among the top 15 and be assured of a spot, but in tonight’s system, he has to be the highest-finishing open driver to make it. In years past he could finish second and make it; now he wouldn’t if the winner was another open driver.
It’s also abundantly clear that the bigger teams will make the show anyway based on speed and driver ability. The old system had fallbacks such as owners’ points provisionals and the past champion’s provisional to make sure the sport’s big names where in the race, and if there were other big-time drivers that failed to qualify following the Duels? They could always buy a spot from a smaller team that made the race. If the deal was sweet enough, the smaller team could earn enough to help them continue on throughout the season.
While the charter system definitely hurts the smaller teams this weekend, it doesn’t have to be that way. If NASCAR had kept a 43-car field, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation because, while 36 cars would be locked in, there would be seven spots available for smaller teams. With only 44 cars entered this weekend – meaning eight open teams attempting the race – only one would go home. That’s acceptable.
Should we include all the teams that attempt to qualify? No. There should be a limit. But reducing a field to a size such that it keeps smaller teams out will only hurt the sport in the long run. For those new teams of today could grow into the established teams of tomorrow. Every Hendrick Motorsports starts somewhere, after all.
– Sean Fesko
Yes, It’s Fair. And Necessary
Picture this: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had a stout car all week. Ask anyone in the field, and they’d tell you he’s one of the drivers to beat.
When the Thursday rolls around, Earnhardt joins the rest of the field for one of the Can-AM Duels. Starting toward the front, Earnhardt maneuvers ‘Amelia’ to the lead. However, one lap later, NASCAR’s most popular driver runs over a stray piece of sheet metal that’s fallen off of another car while pacing the field down the long backstretch.
Seconds later, Earnhardt begins to notice something wrong with his machine. He tries to get down slowed down and off of the track, but he reacts too late. His tire gives out going into turn 3, and Earnhardt crashes into the wall. Suddenly, Earnhardt is eliminated from the Duel, and therefore the 500. The two-time Daytona 500 champion will watch Sunday’s event from home.
Sound bold? Ludicrous? It could happen if some drivers in the field weren’t guaranteed into Sunday’s event.
Back in the day, the stars of NASCAR could conceivably miss the show. However, in today’s sponsor-driven world, that’s simply unacceptable.
Sponsors invest millions of dollars into the biggest teams each season under the assumption that the car will be in the field at every points-paying event on the schedule. When the No. 4 or the No. 48 aren’t in the field, that’s a failure to live up to sponsor commitments. One could even argue that the inability of a driver to show up – Tony Stewart, anyone? – is unacceptable with all of the promises made to sponsors.
Now, I know what arguments may come against me for saying this. Let’s quell them before they become an issue.
1) If drivers fail to make the event, couldn’t they just buy another ride?
Well, in theory… yes. They could. However, it would still be a hard sell with teams. Like it or not, fans associate the number with each driver almost as much as their name. The same is true for many sports – Peyton Manning will always be No. 18 to many – but is even more applicable in NASCAR, where fans see cars as opposed to the drivers inside of them.
Ride-buying might be a a feasible fix for some smaller teams, but when your driver has a number associated with them, starting with another team’s number isn’t a good alternative.
2) What about tradition?!
Sorry, fans, but tradition isn’t going to be an acceptable answer for much of anything NASCAR related anymore. Look, I know you probably don’t like to hear that. I get it. I miss the non-Chase days, too. But the “good ‘ole days” aren’t coming back. With all of the change occurring in the NASCAR we watch today, tradition simply doesn’t hold much weight when put up against necessary business decisions.
Speaking of business, that’s ultimately the bottom line when it comes to automatic qualifiers in NASCAR’s biggest race. Fans come to NASCAR races to see their favorite drivers – Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, whoever it may be – compete. Failure to guarantee to fans that their favorite driver won’t be around on Sunday is a bad business decision. Failure to ensure the stars of the field run on Sunday is also failure to ensure fans get their money’s worth by attending a race.
– Aaron Bearden