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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Top 35 Derby

In European football (soccer for us Yanks) they call it relegation. At the end of the season the bottom three teams in the standings are sent down to the lower division, while three others are promoted. Unlike most US sports leagues, relegation battles create added excitement and interest for teams that otherwise have nothing to play for. Relegation means not only a lower level of competition, but significantly lower revenue. For teams in England, staying in the Premiere League means a piece of a billion dollar TV contract (about $60 million USD per team).

An NFL or NBA team that is out of playoff contention begins playing for next year. This often involves passively improving their draft pick status to land the next franchise player. Aside from waning fan support, there is no incentive for the bottom teams to remain competitive. For a losing franchise in the US, there is no reason to take interest.

Maybe the closest a US sport gets to relegation is NASCAR’s top 35 rule. Teams outside the top 35 in owner points have to qualify on time for seven or eight transfer spots to make each race. It’s not always a popular rule among fans, but it has definitely added excitement and interest for cars near the bottom of the standings. If not for the top 35 rule few would have paid attention to Kyle Petty and Sterling Marlin during the Chase. Instead it was an interesting side story as the season wound down. It also means a big difference in revenue for the teams. Obviously missing a race means no prize money, but also the potential of losing sponsors, the costs of traveling to races and their cut in the year end points fund.

The Nextel Cup is only two races in, but some teams are already in a huge hole for 2007. The first big landmark will come after the Bristol race. At that point the top 35 drivers in owner points are locked in. There are 12 teams attempting to enter the top 35, while 35 other teams attempt to stay anchored in the safety zone.

Based on the past three years, 400 points is the magic number for assured safety. That’s the average points total of the 32nd place driver after 5 races. With more full time drivers competing to make races, that might be too high. 400 points breaks down to averaging 80 points per race, or finishing 26th. For drivers like Brian Vickers and Paul Menard, who have already missed one race, the average bumps up to 100 points per race or a top 20 every week. Remember, Scott Riggs missed the Daytona 500 in 2006 and was back inside the top 35 by week 6. It’s not an impossible task.
Twelve drivers are trying to wriggle inside the top 35. The results range from sitting pretty to sitting on the edge of a cliff.

Joe Nemechek-A top ten at Daytona was huge. Nemechek currently has 259 points and sits 7th in points. Ginn Racing has obviously improved all three teams since last year. Nemechek is an excellent qualifier and the points he’s already accumulated provide additional cushion.

Johnny Sauter-After a disastrous 2004 rookie year with Richard Childress, Sauter has returned from Busch purgatory. He was always a good driver-he won a Busch race in 2005- but couldn’t land another Cup ride until this season. Two top 20 finishes in two races quietly puts Sauter on pace to sit inside the top 35 with room to spare. Maybe the bigger concern is ensuring his teammate Jeff Green is around to join him.

Dale Jarrett-It is a different story for Jarrett without his past champion provisional. Using the provisional buys Jarrett at least six races, but he hasn’t piled up points so far. He is 28th with 164 points, but struggled all day at California. How bad was it? His driver rating was 32.9 while running all day. Martin Truex Jr, who blew an engine after 14 laps, had a 37.1 driver rating. Jarrett should be fine in the long run, but MWR must find more speed.

Sterling Marlin-Qualifying on speed is old news to Marlin, who spent a large part of 2006 outside the top 35. The cars have been better so far this season, but an early crash at California hurt. Marlin’s 170 points puts him ahead of the 400 point pace, but he can’t afford the crashes that plagued him last season.

Brian Vickers-Team Red Bull finally made a race, and the finish was impressive. Doug Richert and Vickers form the best crew chief-driver combination of the Toyota cars. Vickers needs to average 88 points over the next three races to reach the 400 point mark. Qualifying for the Toyotas has still been troublesome, but once Vickers is in the race he is good enough to get Red Bull up and running.

David Reutimann-So far his record shows to races made on speed and three DNF’s including the Twin 150’s. He has been one of the fastest Toyotas in qualifying and certainly the most consistent of the MWR cars. Unfortunately he doesn’t have very many points to show for it. He sits 41st with 107 points. With two more speedway races and then the rookie-humbling Bristol, it could be a challenge to make the top 35 after Bristol. Reutimann is definitely capable of making races and eventually entering the top 35.

Paul Menard-All the attention is on his teammates and their blown engines, but Menard had a steady race at California. His 103 points puts him in the ballpark for entering the top 35. He is currently 43rd, although there are two part time drivers ahead of him that he will pass granted he continues to qualify for races. He was second fastest among Need for Speed drivers at California.

Michael Waltrip-The 100 point penalty from Daytona is enormous. After missing the CaliforniaToyota will figure things out as the season continues and all three of Waltrip’s cars will run better. It just won’t be immediately in the top 35. race, Waltrip still sits at -27 points after two races. What’s worse, his teammates were not very good on the intermediate track.

Jeremy Mayfield-The second Bill Davis team was expected to have a head start on the other Toyota teams because it was an established organization. Mayfield is a good driver and should be able to make two or three of the next few races. It is still a large hole missing the first two races. If he can’t make one of the next two races the year might turn into one big R&D session and building towards 2008. It sounds extreme, but that’s how competitive Cup has become.

AJ Allmendinger-It’s not surprising that the driver with no Cup experience would have the hardest time making races. What is surprising is that Allmendinger isn’t running the Busch series. He ran both truck races but he needs as much seat time as possible and Red Bull had to know it would be tough to do so at the Cup level. At least there are two road courses to circle on the calendar.

Mike Bliss, Ward Burton, Kenny Wallace-These teams all have limited resources and zero Cup starts in 2007. It will be a feat to make more than six races combined this year. It will be a greater feat if all three teams are still entering races by the summer.

With five to six outside drivers in good position to enter the top 35, other drivers will fall. Here are five candidates:

Scott Riggs-With a rough start, Riggs again finds himself with a potential battle for the top 35. The 25 point penalty makes the situation more serious. At least Riggs will get crew chief Rodney Childers back for Las Vegas.

Kyle Petty-The 45 team spent last season struggling to regain a place in the top 35. With better funded teams looking to swoop in, Petty can’t afford many more DNF’s.

Ken Schrader-Schrader was the innocent victim of Dave Blaney’s reckless dive-bomb at Daytona. He is strong at short tracks, but he really needs strong runs at Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Jeff Green-Green had a decent run at Daytona ruined by Jimmie Johnson’s crash. Green has always languished in the high 20’s, but that may not be enough this year.

Dave Blaney-A wreck and a blown engine put Blaney in a hole. He has an established team, but the Camry is far from a finished product. Blaney overachieved last season with an under-supported team. If he falls outside the top 35 to start the season it is a squandered opportunity.

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