NASCAR at Atlanta Motor Speedway: Who Starts and Who Gets Parked?

David YeazellSenior Analyst IMarch 6, 2010

Atlanta Motor Speedway and Jr. Nation fans have started the weekend of racing off on a high note. 

For the first time in nearly two years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on the pole for a NASCAR race.

While this seems to be the big news coming out of Atlanta, it's not the only news.

NASCAR has said cars making it a practice of starting and parking would be under closer scrutiny.

The first salvo in this ongoing debate was fired at Auto Club Speedway when NASCAR impounded Dave Blaney’s No. 66 after post race inspection.

Prism Motorsports, owner of Blaney’s car and arguably the biggest abuser of the start-and-park practice, had two entries at Auto Club, both of which went out early with engine problems.  

The following week at Las Vegas, Prism Motorsports once again made the race with only one car available and Michael McDowell driving, but again, went out early; this time only running 36 laps.

Friday’s qualifying grid at Atlanta had 46 cars attempting to fill 43 positions. According to NASCAR rules, the top 35 in points are assured a starting position without even firing their engines.

Although Prism Motorsports is not one of those 35, they did again make the race with both cars.

NASCAR has become a rich man's sport. Gone are the days when a driver or team would buy a car locally and scrounge together an engine and parts just to race on the weekend.

Well, maybe those days are gone for the likes of Hendricks, Roush, Childress, and a few others, but, unless you have millions of dollars to spend or a sponsor who does, and you want to race in the sport's top level, those days are very much in the present.

An un-sponsored team at Daytona, a prime candidate for start and park, was given an engine to qualify with by TRD.

If the driver qualified for the race, he had to pay $10,000 to continue use of the engine for a set amount of laps. The more laps, or miles put on the engine, the more money it cost, if the engine was run 100 miles, the cost went to $50,000.

The engine never actually belonged to the team. It was, for lack of a better analogy, being rented by the mile.

The non-sponsored team did qualify, stayed out of everyone’s way and never was really competitive, but on lap 64, after being run into from behind, crashed into the turn four wall.

Total prize money, $260,000. Estimated cost to enter race, engine, and four sets of tires and loss of race car, $150,000.

NASCAR teams are run like a business, and business decisions have to be made.

In this case, if the driver had parked after 25 laps, the team could have saved at least a third of the $150,000.

Prism Motorsports is making business decisions. They’re paying the fees and upfront cost to get to the races, and they’re not breaking any rules.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have won four championships by using the Chase format to their advantage.

Start-and-park teams are taking the same approach of forward thinking to gain a financial advantage which allows them to continue racing deeper into the season.

The facts are that several teams outside the top 35 in points are not actually going to the track to race, they’re going to qualify. They have already paid huge upfront costs just to enter the gates. If they succeed, then the decisions to race are made.

Start-and-park together is not part of NASCAR’s roots, but start is, and because the early racers did whatever they could just to start a race, NASCAR evolved and with a host of other things, is what it is today.

NASCAR has said they may start withholding prize money if a team is deemed to have started and parked. This of course will make the decisions even tougher.

Do you spend more money to continue racing or park and face the possibility of no prize money?

Wouldn’t it be easier to pare the starting field down to only the top 35 in points?

Either way it will force teams into bankruptcy or drive them out of the sport altogether.

The question is who will be the first to go and will it happen at Atlanta?