By admin | March 18, 2008
How many starting spots should be guaranteed?
By Richard Allen
A hot topic in NASCAR after the fifth race of the season is the rule which guarantees 35 teams a starting position in each race before qualifying is even held.
The question is, how many starting spots should be guaranteed? Is 35 too many? Is 35 too few?
With a starting field of 43 cars for each race it may seem excessive to know in advance who over 80% of the drivers in a given race are going to be. However, some, in particular team owners and track promoters, would argue that it is essential for the financial health and stability of the teams and the sport to have such assurances.
Those guaranteed a spot in each race are the teams in the Top 35 of the Sprint Cup point standings. NASCAR uses the previous yearâ€™s standings to guarantee those spots for the first five races of a new season.
In a sense, insuring starting spots is NASCARâ€™s way of franchising. By doing this the sanctioning body is assuring its team owners, at least those in the Top 35, that their teams will have a certain value. Owners know they will be receiving at least some purse money, and more importantly, they can promise sponsors, or potential sponsors, their car will race on Sunday.
Also, fans benefit to a degree from the Top 35 rule. With ticket prices as high as they are along with the investment of time and effort to get to a race, most fans want the assurance of knowing their man is going to be in the show. The rule provides that assurance, unless of course that fan happens to cheer for someone outside the Top 35.
However, there are those who argue that the fastest 43 cars in qualifying should be the ones to race.
While that argument sounds good in theory, reality has to set in at some point. The reality is the biggest stars have the most fans. NASCAR and its tracks can not run the risk of having Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart miss a race because they had a tire go flat during qualifying. There simply are too many fans who buy tickets or tune in the television broadcast to watch their favorite driver.
Tracks, television networks, vendors and local businesses surrounding the tracks would suffer too much if all the fans of one of the top stars were to stay home or not tune in. There is no way that would be good for the sport.
But the question remains, what is the right number to guarantee?
There are only eight spots available for teams outside the Top 35 in the standings. Does having so few open spots discourage the development of new teams? Does insuring certain teams the right to race also insure that some of those teams are only going to show up to collect their â€˜appearanceâ€™ money and not to actually compete for wins?
So few spots being available has to serve as a deterrent in some way. Even if a prospective owner was willing to go ahead and take the risk of competing for one of the eight available spots, sponsors would be difficult to persuade knowing the chances are that the team will miss a race or races.
Also, and perhaps worst of all, it does seem as though there are some teams and drivers who are not racing to win but merely to collect that weekâ€™s purse money and move on to the next race. If this is indeed the case, nothing could be worse for the sport. Fans attend or watch races to see everyone give their best effort. If it appears there are too many riders and too few competitors on the track fans will be turned off.
It would seem to an outside observer looking in that 35 teams are too many to guarantee a starting position to. However, there is a need to have some certainty in the lineup. A reduced number, such as 30 or even 25, would open more places and possibly encourage new team growth. Also, all teams would be forced to race rather than ride to stay within that coveted placement.
*Part II of this article, which will deal with championship provisionals and point swaps among team members, should be online by Thursday.*
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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