A Sprint Cup Field Under 43 Cars Isn't Always A Bad Thing
Two Very Different Careers
Watching the early laps of qualifying at Watkins Glen this weekend proved one thing clear; NASCAR may limit fields to 43 cars but that doesn't mean it needs 43 cars to start a race. At present, NASCAR allows the cars fastest qualifying speeds to enter the race itself. A handful of spots are based on series point standing or past champion status, but generally speaking the fastest cars in qualifying start the race. The problem is that if only 43 cars show up at the racetrack some of the teams making the race frankly have no business being there and no chance to win.
Brian Keselowski served as this weekend's rolling roadblock. He was six seconds off the leader's pace during final practice (a full 10mph slower)- and a full second and a half off of the pace of 42nd quickest Tomy Drissi. His qualifying effort was no better, finishing at the same speed as practice and running dead last among the slowest group of qualifiers on the track.
Keselowski has not found much success in his NASCAR career so far. He failed to qualify for nine of the 11 races he's entered on the Sprint Cup level. He raced his way into the 2011 Daytona 500, finishing 41st. He also made the Richmond race earlier this year, another event with only 43 entrants (finishing 40th in a start and park effort). His Nationwide efforts are not much better. He's failed to qualify in 18 of 81 events over the years. When making the race, Keselowski is still more likely to start and park than be competitive; he's failed to finish the race in 33 of 63 starts with an average finishing position of 31.6.
Watch the 2011 Daytona 500 on DVD
From Red Bull to Back Marker
The point here is not to denigrate the effort of Brian Keselowski or his team. He's doing the best he can with his level of talent and equipment. But is there anyone out there who believes the #52 belongs on the track come Sunday?
Keselowski isn't alone in the start and park environment. Watch the ticker at the top of the race broadcast and by the quarter mark you'll see around 5-10 cars out due to various causes at most tracks. Token efforts have been made over the years to validate these race exits but it's difficult for NASCAR's inspectors to prove a negative. If the driver says they felt a vibration NASCAR isn't going to take that car back out onto the track to validate it.
For many low-budget teams, the equipment problems are very real; the engine under a start and park hood doesn't have the same horsepower or longevity as a contender's engine. Why spend the money for an engine that will last an entire race if you have no intention of running one? If your team lacks the money to pay for tires (and thusly won't be racing beyond the first pit window), why not put secondhand engine under the hood? The whole point of a start and park operation is to turn a profit after all. You limit your costs so that the check for finishing 43rd place is larger than your expenses for showing up.
Schrader Is Running
Wrecking Your Championship
Yet this is a case where the individual team's goals and NASCAR's goals simply are not on the same page. NASCAR's goal is to put on a competitive race that attracts the interest of fans, sponsors, and television partners. Having a handful of cars who are non-competitive and have no intention of changing that doesn't support that goal. And the start and park cars can be more than just an annoyance. Not every team planning on parking qualifies at the end of the field. While their cars aren't able to last the full race distance, they might be fast enough on one lap to qualify in the middle of the field. Those slower cars can present an on track hazard to competitive teams that, for whatever reason, are starting deep in the field.
So what can NASCAR do about it? The teams are independent of the sanctioning body, after all. As long as the cars pass inspection and the drivers are licensed, NASCAR has little power to prevent them from making the field. The sanctioning body does, however, have the ability to make a handful of changes to make such operations unprofitable. Removing the profit removes the reason for these teams to show up unless they intend to race.
Should Pole Winners Set A Cut Line?
No Guarantees. The first (and most obvious) change that NASCAR can make is no longer guarantee that 43 cars will be able to start the race. The only reason the #52 showed up at Watkins Glen is because they clearly knew that they'd be guaranteed a spot in the race. So eliminate that guarantee. Instead of saying the fastest 43 cars will start the race, announce that the fastest cars will start it. That leads to change #2...
Minimum Speed Requirement. NASCAR already has a minimum speed requirement for in-race action. If a car is not capable of maintaining a set speed during the race they are forced to leave the trace. Why not similarly have a minimum speed requirement for qualifying? I'm sure NASCAR statisticians can look at past race/qualifying data and come up with an appropriate percentage per racetrack to set a minimum speed. You can even maintain the current provisional system to ensure that a one-off accident during qualifying wouldn't wreck a team's championship hopes. With a minimum speed, at least you would prevent cars that can't keep up from cluttering the track.
Regularly Racing for 43rd
Low Finish Pay Limits. There is no reason why a team should be rewarded by consistently finishing at the end of the field. Michael McDowell has over $1.6M in race earnings for 2013. He's started 19 races and failed to finish 16 of them. He has a total of 109 driver points for the season- or exactly seven more points than Michael Waltrip has starting three races. Why not limit teams on the number of times they can collect a payout for finishing below 35th? If a team could only collect a payout at five times over the course of the year (for finishing outside the top 35), it would encourage teams to at least try to compete longer. It would also prevent teams from even showing up for races they do not intend to finish, particularly late in the season when a championship is on the line.
More Qualifying Races. Daytona's enormous purse discourages most teams from even thinking of a start and park strategy. But another factor is the qualifying procedure. Unless a team finishes on the front row during traditional qualifying, the only way they can make it into the race is to finish well in one of the dual qualifying races. Turning a decent lap isn't enough; you have to race your way in. Given the costs involved it's not something that can be done at every race. But it's definitely worth doing more than once a year, particularly for tracks with bigger purses.
The Advantages of Being Well Funded
Defending NASCAR Champ's Gear Is Here!
Set Up An Equipment/Pit Crew Fund. If you have fewer cars starting the race there's no reason to distribute the existing purse fewer ways. That merely provides more resources to teams that already have them. The chief argument start and park teams make is that they'd prefer to race full time but they just don't have the funds; starting and parking helps set them up to run full races in the future. So why not give that effort a shot in the arm? Use those undistributed race earnings to help fund a research and development shop in Charlotte that teams can take advantage of. Tommy Baldwin, Phil Parsons, and Keselowski probably can't afford a seven post shaker rig, nor can they afford to rent time extensively from a team that has one. Giving them access to one free of charge enhances their ability to compete without taking anything away from the teams already there.
The fund could also be used to help those teams on race day. Based on a number of factors, teams could have access to reduced cost fuel, tires, and on-hand pit crews. Given the number of layoffs in NASCAR over the past five years there are certainly enough people in the Charlotte area able to do the job. Why not use the fund to hire on two or three crews worth of pit employees that could be used by other teams in the garage on race day so they have a chance to compete long term? Obviously, there would need to be restrictions placed on race-day usage; otherwise there would be little point for a team owner to grow and eventually fund their own operation start to finish. But a helping hand might be just what NASCAR needs to provide given the dominance its highest teams are showing on-track.
Under the present environment, start and park teams aren't going away. There's too much financial incentive to do it. Those cars contribute nothing to the race itself and potentially take starting spots away from teams who might be able to go the distance. NASCAR needs to take a measured approach to both encourage the development of race teams and at the same time protect the integrity of the on-track product. The above ideas may not be a full solution but they would certainly be a good first few steps.