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Chasing 35th

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

AVONDALE, Ariz – Who has more on the line over the next two weekends – Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon or Kyle Petty and Dave Blaney?

Before blurting out an answer, consider the following: Even if Johnson or Gordon don't win the championship – with two races to go, Johnson holds a 30-point lead in the Chase for the Nextel Cup – they're guaranteed a spot in the first five races of next year. Conversely, Petty and Blaney are hovering around the all-important 35th spot in the owner's points standings. Finishing 35th or better assures them a spot in the first five races next season. But if they wind up any lower, come February there will be a very real possibility they could miss the Daytona 500, which could send their entire 2008 season into a downward spiral.

"We do," Petty answered without hesitating when asked the who's-got-more-on-the-line question. "Here's why: Because they can only win, and we can only lose. So there's a difference.

"If we lose here, it sends you off in a tough mode going into next year."

Prior to the 2005 season, NASCAR implemented the top 35 rule, which guarantees a spot in the field for the top 35 teams in that week's owners points standings. NASCAR put the rule in place to provide stability for the team owners and their sponsors who have invested heavily in the sport.

Whether the rule is good for the sport is up for debate. Petty, who currently sits 34th, likes it; Bill Davis, owner of the No. 22 car driven by Blaney, doesn't.

"It's great if you're in it, sucks if you're not in it," said Davis, whose car is 35th in the owner's points standings. "I think you should just show up and race. I mean, Tiger Woods can miss the cut. John Force can go to a drag race and not qualify. So maybe we should just show up and race."

There's a legion of fans out there who agree with Davis, complaining that the top 35 rule takes away the bring-what-you've-got philosophy that defined NASCAR from the beginning. Under the current system, the fastest 43 cars rarely, if ever, make the race. In fact, last month at Talladega A.J. Allmendinger turned in the eighth-fastest qualifying lap, yet missed the race.

Confusing, huh?

Davis isn't sure what a satisfactory alternative would be, though he's adamant there be more opportunities (ie. slots) for cars to make it in on speed.

An idea suggested by one team owner is locking in only the 12 teams that qualified for the previous year's Chase for the Nextel Cup. This system would provide some guarantees while producing intense competition from spots No. 13 all the way through No. 43.

Still, Petty, who's been on the top-35 bubble each of the last two seasons, likes the way it's currently set up.

"We don't have franchises like they do in other sports," he explained. "In this sport, they left it open, but they closed it up a little bit and gave us what I like to call a third of a franchise."

And right now, that third of a franchise is worth just as much to Petty (and Blaney, Joe Nemechek and Brian Vickers, who are all chasing to be 35th or better) as a second Nextel Cup would mean for Johnson or a fifth championship for Gordon.

Missing Daytona would not only mean missing a huge payday, but it could wreak havoc on their entire 2008 season. Without earning points at Daytona, those drivers would be forced to play catch up the next week at California. If they don't qualify there, they're now down two races, putting them in a virtual do-or-die situation, because if the cycle continues, they could end up without a job.

"Racing for a championship is a pretty big deal," said Vickers, who currently sits 38th, "but getting in the top 35 is, too."