Commentary

Top-35 rule reigns as bubble drivers vie for guaranteed spots

It's a make-or-break weekend for Sprint Cup drivers trying to lock down an all-important top-35 spot in the standings. Terry Blount asks: Whose bubbles will burst?

Updated: March 11, 2008, 7:44 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Several college basketball teams are on the bubble this week, riding the edge of making it into the NCAA tournament. It's a high-pressure situation.

Some of the Sprint Cup teams know the feeling. This is their make-or-break week, as they sit on the bubble of securing an important top-35 position in the standings.

Bristol this weekend is the last chance to make the top 35 before guaranteed spots in the field are determined on 2008 points. Teams had guaranteed spots based on 2007 points for the first five races.

A few potential sponsors may be waiting to see whether a team has one of those guaranteed spots before committing big money to the program.

It's like the final seconds of a close basketball game with a team needing a 3-pointer to win it and earn a berth in the lucrative NCAAs. Making the tournament is worth big money, as is a top-35 spot in Cup.

Some of the NASCAR teams in the top-35 gray area are courting a potential primary sponsor. Before a sponsor puts its company's logo on the hood, the suits want to know that car will be on the starting grid every weekend.

This is another example of a problem caused from the top-35 rule. If a team doesn't have a guaranteed spot, securing sponsorship is a much harder sale.

At least eight teams are in limbo for the top 35. Only 54 points separate Jamie McMurray in 31st from Dario Franchitti in 38th. That's not much, about 15 to 18 spots in a race, depending on laps led.

"Bristol is going to be wild," Franchitti said. "We'll just do our best, and if we're out, we're out. We'll just have to do it in qualifying. If we end up out of [the top 35] we'll work our way back in. There's nothing else you can do."

All three rookies from open-wheel -- Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. (36th) and Patrick Carpentier (46th) -- are outside looking in. Hornish and Franchitti started the season with guaranteed spots based on owners' points from last year.

Hornish had a guaranteed spot in the first five events because Penske Racing gave him Kurt Busch's points from last season. Busch could use a past champions provisional if he needed it. But that flip-flop won't mean a thing after Sunday's race, unless they try to do it again based on 2008 points.

Dave Blaney (37th), Regan Smith (39th) and Kyle Petty (40th), also are in danger of losing their guaranteed spots from 2007.

Petty Enterprises could do what Roger Penske did and transfer points among teammates. Kyle would take Bobby Labonte's points (he's 14th) because Labonte could use the past champ's provisional.

Any solution has to be considered, but NASCAR might balk at a midseason points swap.

Michael Waltrip Racing may not have to worry about it. All three cars for MWR ended last season outside the top 35, but all three are in heading to Bristol.

The team with the biggest improvement from 2007 is the No. 83 Toyota with Brian Vickers. He ended last year 38th, but Vickers ranks ninth after the first four races.

Teams that fall outside the top 35 after Bristol have to make the next race based on qualifying time. Typically, 13 to 15 drivers compete for eight available spots in go-or-go-home qualifying.

It's a week-to-week moving target. A driver can earn his way back in the top 35 with a couple of strong finishes, but he's playing at a disadvantage.

If a team isn't in the top 35, it has to spend most of its practice time Friday in qualifying trim, hoping to gain enough speed to make the race. If it qualifies, Happy Hour on Saturday is the only time the team can work on a race setup.

No one wants those headaches. And no team wants to lose a potential sponsor because it doesn't have a top-35 spot.

Attendance down at Atlanta
Where were all the people last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway? They sure weren't in the grandstands.

Attendance for Sunday's Cup race probably was the lowest since the track was reconfigured in 1997. No figures were announced, but 80,000 is a good guess.

Clearly, AMS needs to swap dates with someone, so maybe the proposed date change with Fontana would benefit both facilities.

Weather was a factor at AMS. It was snowing Saturday morning and still frosty early Sunday morning. But conditions were good by race time -- clear skies and temperatures in the low 60s.

The odd thing Sunday was the location of the unoccupied seats. The grandstands in Turn 3 were almost full, but the start-finish seats were half empty.

The expensive seats weren't taken, which could show how the economy is affecting things.

Walker, Forsythe say thanks, but no thanks
A couple of the longtime Champ Car teams are going to take their ball and go home instead of playing in the new merged league with the IRL.

Derrick Walker announced Sunday that's he out. Gerry Forsythe, who was one of the co-owners of Champ Car, also closed shop.

Forsythe received $2 million from IRL boss Tony George as part of the merger agreement. And any team making the move to the IndyCar Series will receive $1.8 million.

That's more than half the money it takes to run a full season competitively. It's also $3.8 million more than Forsythe would've had if Champ Car had stayed in business.

Forsythe, who is a billionaire, raced in Champ Car without a sponsor. Even with a subsidy and an increased chance to find sponsors now, and the best-known driver in the series in Paul Tracy, Forsythe called it quits rather than race in the merged league.

It appears some of the bitterness from the 12-year split just won't go away.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter