Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: The Time Is Right for a Change to Top-35 Rule

The NASCAR rulebook is a document that seemingly grows every year. From humble beginnings as a pamphlet handed out to teams at the beginning of every season, it’s evolved into a decent-size book that is still only handed out to teams every season.

The latter part of that causes some consternation among fans and media, because keeping the rules guarded like Fort Knox isn’t exactly transparency at its finest. But one rule is crystal clear to race teams, fans, parking attendants and anyone else who has paid even casual observance over the last several years.

The Top-35 teams in owners points are locked into the next race.

At the beginning of the season, when anything can happen (like five-time champion Jimmie Johnson finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500), NASCAR uses the previous season’s owner standings, giving teams time to rectify mistakes (Johnson was ninth in owner standings by the fifth race of the year) and let the teams on the bubble establish themselves. Then, after race five, it’s every team for itself.

Thanks to a pair of incidents at Martinsville, the rule got a lot of scrutiny this week. First, The No 37 team of Tony Raines had its qualifying time thrown out after the car was too low in post-qualifying inspection. Because the team was not in the Top 35, Raines didn’t race, and his spot in the race went to JJ Yeley, the fastest of the drivers to miss making the field.

That seems reasonable, but the waters are muddied by the fact that when Clint Bowyer’s No. 15 had the same infraction at Daytona and its time thrown out, Bowyer simply had to start in the back of his Gatorade Duel race and was guaranteed a start in the Great American Race.

The other incident, David Reutimann’s late-race attempt to coast around for just a couple of laps – Reutimann later admitted he’d done it in an attempt to make the laps necessary to gain a finishing position and the one point he needed to keep the No. 10 in the Top 35 – has been the main topic of conversation all week.

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Lots of people would like to make Reutimann into a scapegoat for the melee that ensued on the restart, but that one point could mean the difference for his team between racing at Texas next week and watching on TV. With the added pressure of keeping the car in the Top 35 because it would mean that rookie driver Danica Patrick also would not have to qualify on speed for her next race, where people should be focusing is the rule that made those extra laps so crucial for Reutimann.

According to an unscientific poll on Frontstretch’s Facebook page, most race fans would like to see the rule go by the wayside. 81% of those who responded were in favor of scrapping the rule altogether. That’s the number of fans that NASCAR claims said they didn’t like the two-car draft and the sanctioning body immediately tried to break the duos up.

But don’t hold your breath, the same number said on a NASCAR.com poll that they wanted to get rid of the Chase format and that’s not going anywhere. Both the Chase and the Top-35 rule were products of NASCAR’s brain trust and as such, a reversal would require an admission of a mistake on the part of the sanctioning body, which so far hasn’t admitted one yet.

And there are a couple of compelling reasons to keep the rule in place. As 9.5% of voters on our poll pointed out, keeping the rule is important to them because it’s expensive to go to a race and there would be a lot of very disappointed and quite possibly irate race fans if they showed up at the racetrack to find that a popular face wouldn’t be in the field.

Love him or not, just imagine the fan reaction at the track if Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed a race. Or if Tony Stewart didn’t get the chance to defend his title because of a failure to qualify for a race. Those are very real concerns. While it’s true that every driver on the entry list has fans who support him, it’s also true that some very big names dominate the fanbase, and by default, ticket sales.

If you think there are empty seats on Sunday, imagine what it might look like if someone like Earnhardt didn’t make the race. Some of those fans, even if they bought expensive tickets, might not make the trek to the track on Sunday if their favorite wasn’t racing. In addition, how many would elect not to watch the race on television, causing ratings to plummet?

Not only would the fans be left with a sour taste if a top driver wasn’t around on Sunday, but the sponsors would be too. Another 9.5% of voters said that the rule needs to be kept in place because the sport needs sponsors to function. Like it or not, one reason sponsors choose to put their name on the cars of top drivers is because they expect to be in the field and prominently featured on the TV broadcast.

They don’t put out $15-20 million to have airtime committed to them for missing the race. While you could argue that if the rule wasn’t in place, it might be easier for the smaller teams to find sponsor dollars, the big money is going to be in the big teams … and they pay to play, not to sit on the bench. The sport is in a place where it can’t afford to have sponsors walk away and the folks in Daytona Beach understand that particular reality.

But even with two very strong arguments for keeping the rule, there’s that overwhelming 84% who said it needs to go. Not a single voter was in favor of modifying the rule to fewer drivers (the poll option was to guarantee a spot only to the top 10 in points plus the defending series champion); it was all or nothing for either keeping the rule or pitching it out with the dishwater.

Most voters (67%) said that if the Sprint Cup Series went back to two rounds of qualifying the way they used to do, the Top-35 rule could be thrown out without much danger of a big star missing the race. For those who don’t remember, it worked like this: On Friday, all entrants would make a qualifying run and the top 25 would be locked into those positions.

The rest of the field had a difficult choice to make: either stand on the time from the first round or throw the time away and make another run on Saturday after a practice session. Once you decided to re-qualify, the original time was erased, meaning that if you chose to make another attempt and crashed or were too slow, you were in danger of missing the field.

You also couldn’t bump the top 25 from the previous day from those spots no matter how fast you were on the second run.

There was still a safety net in the form of five provisional spots based on points. First, the most recent past champion not otherwise in the field was given the 43rd spot, the same as they are now, and the last four spots, 39th-42nd, were given to drivers not in the field already based on their owner points standings. If there was no past champion, the last spot went to whomever was next in points.

The system worked well, but went by the wayside in the late 1990s amid complaints of an unfairness because the teams who had locked in on time had extra practice time in race trim. (Which could easily be alleviated by allowing only the teams who elected to re-qualify the opportunity to run in that practice.) The Top-35 rule came about a few years later as entries dwindled, allowing a few teams to overuse the provisional system and as sponsor pressure mounted.

Could such a system be viable again after over a decade? Well, yes. It would give a couple of safety nets to a championship contender or fan favorite if they missed the setup or had a bad lap or a spin.

While that does still mean that a slower lap could make it in the race over a faster one, it would eliminate the two larger problems of the inconsistent application of inspection rules based solely on the team’s points standing, as nobody would be guaranteed a start if they failed, and slow cars on the racetrack trying to gain one point to lock themselves into the next race, because it would all be based on what you did during the current week.

There would be no last week and no next week, just right now.

The last 14% of voters said NASCAR should go even further and simply hold a single round of qualifying, with the fastest 43 cars making the field. This has merit as well, although it does carry a higher risk of a big name not making the field should that driver make a mistake during his or her run. It is racing, after all, and purists have long been wanting a system where qualifying was based solely on speed.

It would ensure that practice time was more equitable, and would allow every sponsor an equal chance to be in the field, which could encourage sponsors to pick up smaller teams.

In any case, between the events that took place at Martinsville and the sentiment of race fans, the Top-35 rule has some serious flaws. Creating a grossly unfair system in which teams are penalized for violations based on their points position, with teams lower in points being penalized much more harshly then the ones in the Top 35. Teams making questionable moves during a race because a point is on the line.

Just as importantly and probably more so, if our poll was any indication, the fans are overwhelmingly against it. If I made the call, it would be to go back to two rounds of qualifying with just a handful of provisional spots. I really can’t see a big name going home under this system with its two failsafe measures.

NASCAR took drastic measures a few months ago because the fans were loud and clear about the two-car draft at Daytona and Talladega. It could be a huge move on behalf of the sanctioning body to recognize the fans on the Top-35 rule as well and restore a more equitable system for qualifying, one that won’t set up the type of situations we saw at Martinsville.

Yes, they would have to admit there was a mistake, but ultimately, it would save face with the fans. It’s time to do something really important for the fans and dropping this rule makes perfect sense.

Doing the right thing isn’t the easy thing, but this time it means keeping fans while making the sport fair and safer. It should be a no-brainer.

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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