February 05, 2010
The top 35 rule was implemented to guarantee that NASCAR's marquee sponsors would make the field every week. Of course, with the old provisional system, the chances of a good car missing the field were fairly rare, but NASCAR wanted to avoid that possibility completely.
So, voila -- the top 35! Problem solved, right?
But NASCAR couldn't have envisioned that points swapping -- we detailed the swaps for 2010 on Wednesday -- would become the norm to get top teams in the field, or I imagine this would have been addressed. Or if NASCAR did see this as a future problem, why would they accept it?
I completely understand that NASCAR is the most sponsor-dependent sport in the country. If sponsors aren't happy, NASCAR suffers. Obviously, a Fortune 500 company would be reluctant to shell out $20 million for a start-up car that wasn't guaranteed into the field. (Not to mention that the driver of that start-up team probably isn't nearly as marketable as one locked into the field.)
But should teams be allowed to spend even more money to guarantee that sponsors are happy by buying points and a qualifying spot for a guaranteed quarter of a million in prize money in the Daytona 500?
A dollar figure for points swaps has never been publicized, but given the shoestring budgets that start-and-parks operate on, it's safe to say that Joe Nemechek won't be buying points from anyone any time soon.
At its barest, racing is about letting the fastest cars in the field race for the win. Many times last year, Front Row's John Andretti -- the happy fellow there at right -- was a nonfactor in both the race and qualifying, but was guaranteed into the field via the top 35 rule, and this year, Front Row has three cars in the top 35.
Front Row's owner, Bob Jenkins, is the perfect example of how to build a Sprint Cup team with limited resources. However, just because he was able to afford buying owner points last year for the #34, and points this year for the #37 and #38, doesn't mean that his teams should get a free pass into the first five races.
Given that Jenkins has expanded to three teams this year, there's no reason to expect that Front Row will be a factor in most Sprint Cup races, and its teams will continue to be outqualified by teams outside the top 35. But since Jenkins had that benefit of the owner's points purchase -- and his cars do run the full distance, albeit kind of slowly -- he's got a monster head start on getting all three of those cars into the top 35 for the sixth race.
The easiest solution to the problem is to eliminate the transferring of points altogether, unless it's within an already existing organization. That would outlaw the points transfer that Penske did with Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish Jr. when Hornish was a rookie, and what RPM and Yates did with Paul Menard and the points with the #44 car.
The top 35 rule could stay intact, with the teams that were outside of the top 35 the previous year moving up to fill any vacancies. There's no reason that Scott Speed shouldn't be locked into the field for the Daytona 500 while a third Front Row car is. And it's a much simpler solution than trying to figure out the starting grid if qualifying happens to get rained out at California or Las Vegas.
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