NASCAR: A Plea for the Death of the Top-35 Rule

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IFebruary 2, 2010

MARTINSVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 25:  Bobby Labonte, driver of the #96 DLP Ford, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 25, 2009 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jason Smith/Getty Images

Looking at the way the past couple of offseasons (and seasons themselves) have gone, it’s about time that we put this whole “top 35 in owners’ points automatically qualify for the race” thing to rest.

Despite NASCAR implementing rules designed to prevent owners’ points transfers, top 35 starting positions have been an abstract commodity for the past couple of years. Selling points from one team to another—the exact sort of thing that NASCAR has tried to block–has been circumvented by the new teams allowing the old owners in question to remain on the entry list.

Last year’s offseason was the worst. Think that Bobby Ginn had anything to do with Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 car last year? Does Theresa Earnhardt have anything to do with Front Row Motorsports? How about the former Bill Davis Racing–did Sam Hornish Jr. have more of a claim to that team’s owners’ points than Tommy Baldwin Racing, which had its old crew chief and a handful of its crew members?

That’s not, however, to say that this year hasn’t also been pretty bad. The latest transfer of points from one team to another is between Furniture Row Racing and Richard Childress Racing, which will allow the No. 78 to take the points from RCR’s fourth car. Childress will become an owner of the team, but FRR will continue to use Hendrick engines.

There’s also the creation of Latitude 43 Motorsports, established when Roush Fenway Racing had to sell off its fifth team to get under NASCAR’s team cap (a different embarrassing issue entirely). Because of the team cap, NASCAR allowed RFR to sell off its owners’ points and equipment to a new owner without having to remain on board with the new operation.

Confused? Angry? You’re not alone.

Plenty of teams have attempted to switch points within their organization, too, in order to give drivers better starting positions in case of rainouts.

Last year, Juan Montoya and Aric Almirola of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing switched points early in the year. Yates Racing also messed around with its teams, to the benefit of Bobby Labonte and Paul Menard and the detriment of Travis Kvapil. This year, Richard Petty Motorsports may shift the points from its No. 44 last year to follow A.J. Allmendinger to the No. 43.

It’s funny that NASCAR allows this now, when two years ago, they refused to allow Michael Waltrip Racing to transfer David Reutimann’s points from the No. 00 to his new car, the No. 44.

The top 35 rule was originally designed to protect the fully-funded teams and their sponsors, guaranteeing them passage into the field, while start-and-park teams would have to earn their way in. On the surface, it’s a nice thought, as it gives the fans a better chance at watching a solid race. It doesn’t matter how fast a start-and-park car can run, nobody wants to see it pull back into the garage after ten laps.

But in 2007, when the Sprint Cup Series had 49 full-time, solidly-funded teams, and start-and-parkers were endangered species, the rule remained in place, and plenty of teams bit the bullet. Many of their sponsors either left their old teams for partial-season deals with the sport’s heavyweights, or left the sport entirely.

Combine that with the oft-cited economic woes that America currently faces, and we have about 39 full-time teams this year, fighting for 35 guaranteed spots and 43 spots on any given weekend.

Four of those teams will face a great disadvantage all season. Because they will have to focus far more on qualifying than the top 35 teams, who will have all weekend to work on race setups, their cars will not be as strong during the races themselves, leading to inevitably low finishes. As the mediocre and poor finishes pile up, they will fall further back from the top 35, as Kevin Buckler’s No. 71 car did last year, keeping them down for 2011.

Let’s face it: the old system–fastest cars make the field, provisionals for the slowest cars with the most owners’ points, DNQ’s for the cars that run out of provisionals–is still the best way of doing things. If Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are slow one weekend, brutally slow, they shouldn’t be racing. The fastest cars ought to be the ones racing, right?

With everybody having to devise two setups on any given weekend, it improves the chances of making the race for the cars running limited schedules. Michael Waltrip, Max Papis, and Bill Elliott won’t have to put everything into qualifying the way they do under the top 35 rules. They would be doing the same work, on the same things, as everybody else.

And if these start-and-park cars pull off qualifying miracles–winning the pole, for example–they can capitalize by running the decals of the cars that failed to qualify, or attracting some other sponsors to help them run the whole race. Nobody wants to start-and-park when they’re qualifying in the top five.

One more thing: no more of this owners’ points transferring crap. You get the points that your team earned last year. It’s only fair. If you stop guaranteeing the top 35 into the race, it doesn’t even matter all that much anyway–everybody gets the same amount of provisionals.

I know my cries will likely fall upon deaf ears in the NASCAR compound, but it’s worth a shot. The top 35 rule is a nice thought, but its practice only causes problems when more than 35 cars are fully-funded and running the entire schedule.

It’s time we go back to the old system and forget this one, once and for all.


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