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Thursday, March 08, 2007

How to improve Qualifying (I couldn't think of a better heading)

Two weeks ago at California Michael Waltrip threw down a qualifying lap that was 34th fastest. It was faster than 10 teams that made the race, but Waltrip took the long early voyage back across the country. After a tumultuous Speedweeks that saw Waltrip exit with negative points, it was another tough result for the #55 team. Four seasons ago Waltrip wouldn’t have had to worry about explaining to NAPA why they missed the race. The problem now is owner’s points. With the top 35 teams assured spots every Sunday, new teams face a serious challenge to make races. The challenge is compounded this year with so many new teams attempting the full Cup schedule.

A common response from fans is “go fast or go home.” It sounds simple, but the issue is far more complex than simply sending slow teams home. Eliminating all guaranteed spots is not possible. There are too many interests involved for this to work.

Fans come to watch the stars. It is one of the unique attractions that NASCAR can offer. Very few sports can guarantee that all of the top drivers will be in the same event every weekend. Even in golf, stars like Tiger Woods don’t play many of the smaller events.

A paying fan can bank of the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and almost every other top star will be in the race they choose to attend.

Without some assurance that the stars will race, it opens a door that NASCAR certainly doesn’t want opened. Say Tony Stewart cuts a tire in qualifying at Indianapolis. Suddenly one of the most popular drivers in the sport would not be in the field in one of the biggest races of the year. Stewart fans would miss seeing their favorite driver. Fans who hate Stewart miss out on the chance for their favorite driver to beat Stewart. Race fans as a whole would miss one of the top drivers at one of his favorite tracks. It goes beyond one driver too. If a driver wins, they want beat all the top drivers. Fans want to see a collection of all the top drivers their favorite included.

This also affects the large sponsors. Whether fans like it or not sponsors do have a large say in NASCAR. It makes things murky, but that’s the way it goes when Fortune 500 companies invest seven figures in the sport.

If you are a team inside the top 35, it is a tremendous advantage. First there is little need to work on qualifying setups during practice sessions. They can focus solely on running race trim if desired. Secondly, if they have a safe, slow qualifying lap there is no risk of smacking the wall and ruining a primary car during qualifying.

Guaranteed spots in the field will not go away, but it does need tweaking. The rule’s original intent was to provide some insurance for the teams that attempted every race. Maybe it made sense in 2005 when there were fewer than 43 full time teams. Now there are close to 50 with plans to enter all 36 races. Reduce the number of teams to somewhere between 20 and 25. That way anyone with realistic visions of making the Chase, and this presumably would include most stars, and let everyone else make the race on time.

Another related issue is the Champion’s provisional. NASCAR took a step in the right direction by capping its use to 6 races per season, but they can do more. Make it so a driver can’t use the provisional in consecutive races. That would eliminate teams from hiring a past champion to secure a top 35 spot after five races. Call it the Terry Labonte Rule (it’s nothing against Hall of Fame Racing or Labonte, they played by the rules).

Suddenly instead of 36 of 43 spots guaranteed, the number is reduced to 25. Suddenly 40% of the field is open to the fastest qualifying times. The locked-in drivers would still have an advantage, but it would even the playing field for making each race. Maybe it’s not perfect, but it would be a pretty good compromise.

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