What is the only workplace where the term “TGIF” doesn’t bring a smile to everyone’s face? Come on, everyone looks toward Friday with its long-awaited weekend just around the corner. That may be true for most of us, but if you call NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series your place of work, then Friday may indeed be the toughest day of the week.
What makes Friday the beast of the week is that at almost every stop on the schedule, Friday is qualifying day and for an evermounting group of teams it has turned into a day of go or go home. Only 43 cars take the green flag for a Sprint race and at most stops on the schedule there are around 50 cars trying to capture one of those prized slots in the starting grid.
Maybe qualifying would be easier to figure out if you let every car run a lap and then put the 43 fastest in the field, but NASCAR chooses to protect the top 35 in owner’s points each week. Being in the top 35 in the standings is a huge bonus for every team trying to make a race as it gives them a safety net to fall back on if they have a bad run on qualifying day. It’s also a huge bonus to finish the season in the top 35 as NASCAR uses the final point standings from the previous year to help set the field for the first five races of a new season.
NASCAR has used the top-35 rule in the past to protect those teams and sponsors that run the entire schedule. When the sport was trying to attract full-time sponsors, it made sense to protect those companies that were willing to put up the big dollars but that has now changed. Each week now when qualifying is over, there are several full-time sponsored teams packing up and heading back to their shops, which in return gives their sponsor nothing in return for the money it invested.
Just having a fast car doesn’t guarantee a car outside of the top 35 a spot in the starting field. It seemed that every stop on the schedule had cars missing the show because a slower car actually made the field thanks to the top-35 rule. When you are being sent home because some other team was protected by the top-35 rule, it makes the task of getting your car inside the all inclusive top-35 club all the more difficult.
Now, if you are one of the lucky ones to enjoy one of the positions in NASCAR’s elite 35, then you are also in a position to help another team. Over the past years we have seen teams get out of the sport over the winter but make a few more bucks by “selling” their team to another owner, which also includes their position in the point standings. It’s all legal but if you’re one of the teams not already in the top 35 or a start-up team, it becomes just another obstacle that you must face on qualifying day.
Last week Penske Racing showed the sport another way of using the top-35 rule to its benefit. Penske fielded teams for Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman this past season and next year will be adding a third team to its lineup with open wheel driver Sam Hornish Jr. Busch and Newman both finished in the top 35 and are guaranteed starting spots in the first five races of the 2008 season, but Hornish faced the season with no owner points and the prospect of having to qualify for the first five events by racing his way in on qualifying day.
Normally, Hornish would be left to fend for himself on qualifying day when the sport gets underway in February, but thanks to NASCAR’s unique qualifying procedures, Penske has found a way to ease Hornish’s transition into the sport. Penske with NASCAR’s approval has transferred Busch’s owner’s points to Hornish. That automatically puts him in the starting field for the first five races.
Busch, by being the 2004 series champion, is assured provisionals if he doesn’t qualify for a race, which would take him past the magical first five race point of the season. It’s definitely a win-win for the Penske organization, but if you’re locked outside of the top 35 it’s just another car you have to deal with on qualifying day. Last season every new team started the season by missing some races and it appears that Fridays this season will not be getting any better.