DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Robby Gordon finished the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season 38th in the owner standings, three spots and 160 points from 35th. It was a critical miss for Gordon's underfunded, self-owned effort, as the top 35 teams are given guaranteed starting spots for the first five races of 2012.
That meant Gordon wasn't a lock for the 54th Daytona 500 — and could miss the race for the first time since the year he opened his own NASCAR team in 2005.
But Gordon avoided that in Thursday's Gatorade Duels at Daytona — the qualifying races that set the grid for the 500 — and raced his No. 7 in to the field thanks to a ninth-place finish in the first race. He picked up one of four spots open to previously unqualified drivers in the qualifying races, and then railed on how another driver — Terry Labonte — joined the field.
"Obviously I [have] a lot of respect for Terry," Gordon began. "This is not a Terry Labonte thing. There's only eight cars that make the Daytona 500. He takes one of those spots, now seven guys make the Daytona 500. Four make it on qualifying races, three make it on speed. We're a small team, too. I guess I should hire [past champion] Kurt Busch and I could put my other car in the show, too. It's just not right."
Labonte, the 1996 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, was locked in to the Daytona 500 by virtue of being the most recent series champion not already in. Despite having just the 31st-fastest speed in qualifying, Labonte was able to bank on a 16-year-old accomplishment to lock his way into the Daytona 500. The lock was so sure that Labonte, driving an underfunded Ford, was a start-and-park in Gordon's same qualifying race. Labonte completed just 12 of the 60 laps in the first Gatorade Duel, with the team announcing "vibration" as his reason for not continuing.
Of course, "vibration" couldn't be further from the truth. Labonte and his FAS Lane Racing team, used one of NASCAR's old-as-time rules that guarantees a spot in a race for the most recent past series champion not already qualified. Labonte, who won his second NASCAR Sprint Cup title in 1996, was that guy and made a decision knowing that the small team he drove for couldn't afford to wreck their Ford before Sunday's race.
Gordon understands that logic — he played the start-and-park game in 2011 — but that didn't change his ill will toward the champion's provisional rule.
"I think that should be based if you were with that team when you win the championship, not just because you win a championship, because that takes a spot from the teams that are working really hard to get in to the Daytona 500," Gordon said.
"Why take a free ride when the rest of us have to bust our butts to get in to the 500? It is what it is. It's the rules."