On Sunday, Quin Houff made an abrupt move that impacted the outcome of a NASCAR Cup Series race for several drivers. It’s time for NASCAR to make an abrupt move to ensure that someone like him can’t do it again.
With any sport, the expectation is that those who compete in its highest level are among the most skilled at it. For NASCAR, that is where the blessing of inclusion becomes a curse. Racing, particularly NASCAR, has always been the sport of the everyman. It is true that even at a grassroots level, it can get pricey. But the only requirement has really ever been money. There aren’t many sports that can offer the same type of open door. You can’t just join an NFL roster because you walked in with a check from a large corporation.
Years ago, this was a non-issue. Companies that bankrolled race teams were more attached to the actual team than a specific driver. That enabled the team to hire the wheelman (or woman) they believed was most suited for the ride. Generally speaking, the goal was a balance of skill, experience and brand. Hire the person who could wheel the car and had demonstrated said ability to wheel — and it never hurt if they looked good on a cereal box or a case of motor oil.
Now that the responsibility for financing has fallen to the driver, the one with the biggest wallet gets their name above the window. Even worse optics is the fact that many of these young drivers are backed by a company in which the driver has a family member in a position of influence. This brings about the cries from fans accusing drivers of racing with “Daddy’s money.”
Houff is just the latest example of a disastrous watering down of the Cup field, a trend that has made a mockery of the phrase “40 best stock car drivers on the planet.” It’s not the 40 best. It’s the 40 most fiscally sound options, and everyone knows it. So drop the charade, NASCAR.
Now comes another opportunity for NASCAR to step up to the plate and take the right side of a decisive debate. Great strides have been taken in the name of progress lately, so why not continue the full-fledged remodel? I see no reason that a late-model standout shouldn’t have a chance to race in a Truck or Xfinity series event. But the NASCAR Cup Series ought to be treated as the premiership that it is. There has to be a more stringent prerequisite for participating at the top level of stock car racing.
There are a few ways NASCAR could go with this, but the obvious one is a certain number of starts in NXS, Trucks, or a combination of the two. A total of 30 career starts in one series or both would be a great place to begin. There are a number of different formulas that could be put together to determine eligibility. What I do know is that this system we have now of permitting the most financially enhanced drivers to race isn’t working for anyone. Even young racers like Houff don’t benefit from this arrangement, as they are thrown to the wolves, taking the green in a situation that they aren’t prepared for with little hope of succeeding.
Personally, I’d like to see it taken a step further: winners only. Make it mean something again to be in a Cup race. Television announcers like to tout the fact that race winners have qualified for the All-Star Race, as if the latter is the bigger prize. Wouldn’t it be great if a driver picked up a victory in Trucks or Xfinity, only to be reminded as they are celebrating that they’re now eligible to race in the highest division?
To be fair, the crash Sunday was Houff’s fault. His presence in the race was not. He, like all other drivers, was presented with the stipulations that must be met to race, and he met them. But the stipulations cannot be almost exclusively monetary in the way that they are now.
I can name better than 10 current drivers who are a lock to race in Cup at some point based solely on the likelihood that they will have the necessary funding. There are some people with offices in NASCAR headquarters who should be embarrassed by that. Qualifying for a NASCAR Cup Series race should be an achievement beyond simply determining starting positions. It needs to signify that the participants have earned their place with something that doesn’t have a dollar sign in front of it.