With the bad economy taking its toll on NASCAR in a variety of ways (truck series struggling to reach 36 entries each week, Cup teams folding like an origami sensei, just to name a few), a nasty phenomenon has popped up in the Nascar Sprint Cup Series—the start-and-park team.
Start-and-park teams used to be oddities at worst, minor hindrances at the back of the field that nobody noticed when they dropped out a few dozen laps into the race. They were lovable losers like Morgan Shepherd of Victory in Jesus Racing and Faith Motorsports.
They were feel-good stories, like Kirk Shelmerdine shocking everyone at the 2006 Daytona 500, racing to a 20th place finish with last year's car, a borrowed engine and pit crew, and tires donated by die-hard Earnhardt Sr. fans.
But in this weekend's Food City 500 at the World's Fastest Half-Mile, Bristol Motor Speedway, Dave Blaney brought start-and-park teams to everyone's attention—sideways in front of the field in Turn Four.
The accident wasn't Blaney's fault. Lapped driver John Andretti, whose better days are most certainly behind him and in a different type of car, spun Blaney, who was running second at the time behind defending series champion Jimmie Johnson after forgoing an early pit stop to gain track position. Blaney was holding his own until Andretti spun him.
Blaney's spin seemed pretty benign, and he did everything they tell you to do when you're spinning: Crank the wheel to the left and stand on the brake. Blaney did and managed to keep the car off the wall, and, miraculously, the 40 cars behind him.
Things went south from there. Blaney brought the car down pit road, then made the hard left turn into the infield area. The move was puzzling, because usually after a spin like that, the driver brings the car into the pits for four fresh Goodyear Eagles and two cans of Sunoco 98 octane race fuel and keeps going.
Later in the broadcast, commentators noted that Blaney's number 66 Camry was in the garage area undergoing repairs. Repairs for what? He didn't hit anything! Did the engine spin backwards and blow up? Didn't seem like it when he drove the car off turn four and down the pit lane. Did he lose a gear? At Bristol, you only need one, except on restarts.
Soon afterward, Blaney was listed as "Out," and the official reason given to NASCAR was a steering failure. A steering failure? The car seemed to steer fine into the pits and the garage. To me, it seems like the problem with the car is that Blaney flat-spotted the only set of tires the team had. I guess the poor handling on a flat-spotted set of tires could be considered a steering failure, but I would prefer a more honest approach.
Now, there's no telling if one of the two teams that didn't qualify this weekend (Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs) might have done the same thing in this situation. I also can't be sure that Blaney's car wasn't actually experiencing a steering malfunction as a result of sliding sideways across 36 degrees of banking.
What I do know is that this incident brings the start-and-park team debate into sharp focus.
What if this had happened at another race, when a team that had enough funding to buy tires for the entire race was bumped out by a start-and-park with a faster qualifying time? Sure, the fastest teams outside the Top 35 in owner points get into the race, but there are plenty of ways to make the race if you have no intent of finishing it.
Running the engine with low-weight or very little oil will increase the revs for the two laps needed to qualify, but won't last for 500. You could qualify the car with no alternator belt, as Joe Nemecheck did last spring at Talladega, to increase engine efficiency, knowing that the alternator won't do much in your two-lap run.
But should a team that can gimmick its way into the show really be able to pocket the last place purse ahead of a team that could legitimately contend with other cars for the entire race?
Nobody expects every team in the field to contend for the win. There will always be cars out there that are running for Top 10 finishes, cars that are running for Top 20s, and cars that are running to get a young driver more experience. But do we really need cars that are going to drop out after 35 of 500 laps?
Perhaps I'm just blowing steam. But let's look at the 66 car's results with Blaney behind the wheel: 42nd at California—fuel pump issues after 50 laps; 41st at Atlanta—electrical problems after 82 laps; 43rd at Bristol—steering issues after 33 laps. Looks like a start-and-park to me.
With Terry Labonte behind the wheel (and a sponsor on the hood), the team finished the entire rain-shortened race. Sounds like a start-and-park to me.
And something should be done.