Wide Distribution of Past Champions' Provisional Is Keeping NASCAR Interesting

Joe M.Correspondent IIMarch 15, 2009

Each week, we watch qualifying prior to a race and see the top 43 fastest drivers make it based on time. Most of the time, making the actual race is only a formality for these most skilled, likely veteran drivers on the best teams and in the best equipment.

But sometimes, as seen most recently as early 2008, but especially 2007, sometimes a driver has to rely on his past success just to get him into the show that was once so easy.

What I am referring to is the past champions provisional that allows a driver who has won a seasonal points championship in the Cup series any year in the past, be allowed into the field based on this privilege.

Able to be used up to six times in a given season, once enacted, it usually drops out a struggling, unknown driver just trying to make the field and get a paycheck for his upstart or veteran small market team in which he drives.

I can think of no other season when this provision was most evident than in 2007 when it was constantly on display in the form of Dale Jarrett racing for upstart if there ever was one, Michael Waltrip Racing, in a Toyota model.

Jarrett, a past champion (1999) for Robert Yates Racing, had left the veteran and stable two car operation, the only organization in which he'd known during his entire 22-year career to that point, for a new team that would require him to switch makes, models, and owners.

As one can imagine, the transition did not go very smoothly to say the least as Jarrett had to use his provisional the maximum number of times this season just to qualify for the races.

By Talladega in April he was done and actually ended up missing eleven races as a result of not qualifying in on time. How far the mighty had fallen from a man that had known nothing but success and domination ('99) during his entire professional racing career.

To those of us that witnessed this, it was a tough spectacle to watch from a veteran driver who had sacrificed most of his very identity. Two years later, we see the result now with Jarrett retired but with MWR now down to its more manageable two car team, they seem to be having much more success.

Some may credit this to MWR's relationship with fellow Toyota owner Joe Gibbs, but also to Jarrett for showing them the way and bringing them valuable sponsorship that sticks with them today.

While Jarrett's team mate David Reutimann, lost Jarrett's longtime sponsor, UPS, to upstart third year driver, Dave Ragan, he was able to secure Aaron's and is now the driver of the Aaron's Dream Machine and is currently a Chase driver based on the current standings.

This was made possible by Reutimann's strong showing last year as a transitional driver of the No. 44 in which Jarrett drove and the UPS sponsor that adorned his car last season. Reutimann obviously learning something from Jarrett, has increased his points position each year he has been on the circuit, from 70th in 2005, to 39th, 22nd last year, and now currently 12th.

List of the current champions (year of most recent Cup Championship in parenthesis)

Hendrick Motorsports: Gordon, ('01) Johnson ('08)

Roush Kenseth ('03)

Hall of Fame/Yates: Labonte ('00)

Penske Racing-Kurt Busch ('04)

Wood Bros. Elliott ('88)

Stewart-Haas: Stewart ('05)

Bobby Labonte, driver of the Ask.com No. 96 has basically taken Jarrett's role of veteran driver at Hall of Fame/Yates Racing and he too has a past champions' provisional in his back pocket should he, and his new team ever have to use it.

This is key since he's the best Yates Racing has and with any luck, drivers like Paul Menard, will stop spinning their wheels like he has all these years and actually do something besides win one pole.

In addition, any success from Labonte could better attract Travis Kvapil's replacement, someone like Ragan, or Jaime McMurray next year.  

We know about Hendrick Motorsports with Gordon and Johnson and the power team they have. We know about Roush-Fenway that surprisingly still only has one champion on its deep, veteran team but its the Stewart-Haas', Penske's, and Yates' that keep it interesting.

All these teams have drivers that could win at least one race this season, and in some cases, evidenced by Kurt Busch last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, have drivers that do win, and will continue to win throughout this season.

As in Kurt Busch's case, its beginning to look a lot like 2004 and I won't be surprised to see him win two to three more races before the season's out and be a definite Chase contestant.

I tribute his success to Penske Racing's merger with Bill Davis, late of Bill Davis Racing. This alliance was necessary, as I predicted in January, and the rewards are being seen now.

Davis, while only a small time owner, brings his experience, and additional financial collateral, however small that may be, to a team that desperately needed change in order to be competitive.

They now have Busch to rally around, whose winnings will only help this team stay a factor this season and into next season. We can see this taking place, as David Stremme, currently a surprising 26th in the standings, shows this is more than just a one man team that includes an improving Sam Hornish to boot.

We all know about the drama surrounding Tony Stewart, co-owner of the Stewart-Haas team.

We know he's a two time champion that clearly hasn't lost a step, and is currently a Chase driver ranked No. 6, despite what I predicted, and to see him win, wouldn't surprise me either although I think it will come later as he's traditionally a summer driver.

Brickyard anyone? The x-factor here is Ryan Newman and whether he can learn anything from Stewart this season as both drivers strive to get back to their old winning ways.

Finally that leaves us to Awesome Bill from Dawsonville who races for the perpetually fledgling Wood Bros. Racing. Sitting 41st in the standings and 128 points out of the top 35 with only Bristol to go, its clear he'll be a go-or-go-homer the rest of the year. While only running a partial schedule he's managed to make it into 2/4 races.

At this pace he'd make it into 18 races without the benefit of his past Champions' provision which he hasn't had to use yet.

Throw those six additional races in, and with any luck, he'd really be able to financially help out the Wood Bros. in grooming Elliotts' heir apparent whenever that is, likely Wood Bros. grandson John at some point.

Oh, and don't look now, but if the Chase started today it would be represented by a season-high nine different teams. Is parity in NASCAR coming?