Top-35 rule coming under fire in Cup's new era

Is the top-35 rule still viable in Nextel Cup's new era? Marty Smith goes Door-To-Door to find out who is for it, who is against it, and why.

Updated: May 31, 2007, 5:16 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Before NASCAR implemented the top-35 rule -- which guarantees entrance into the field for the top 35 teams in the week's owner's points standings -- well-funded, full-time teams occasionally were bumped from the field by part-time operations, some of which had no intention of accomplishing more than a start-and-park.

Just making the field meant 50 or 60 grand. They weren't there for points. Some weren't even there for competition but rather for the quick buck.

In turn, some owners who were in it for the long haul were suffering.

It all truly came to a head at the 2004 Bass Pro Shops 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, when part-time cars driven by Bill Elliott, Shane Hmiel, Kyle Busch, Travis Kvapil, John Andretti and Tony Raines all made the show on time, sending Scott Wimmer and Scott Riggs, who ranked 28th and 30th in owner's points, respectively, to the house.

NASCAR was concerned and, at the outset of 2005, implemented the rule that would take care of the owners who had contributed greatly to the overall health and stability of the sport, guaranteeing spots to 80 percent of the cars in the field each week.

It was a novel concept: Take care of those who take care of you.

But times have changed. Should the rule change, too? There is speculation in the Nextel Cup garage that it might happen in 2008. Some teams are lobbying ardently. NASCAR, per usual, said it will survey the situation after the season and make a determination as to whether any alteration is necessary. It said nothing will happen this year.

Financially, the NASCAR Nextel Cup field is as deep and healthy as it has ever been. In 2005, 42 teams attempted the first six races. In '06, that number climbed to 45. This year, 49 teams attempted the first six -- and have shown up every week since.

Full-time, fully funded teams are failing to qualify, sometimes even if they're a-tenth-of-a-second faster than a top-35 machine in qualifying. Sure, I understand the team in the top 35 might be running race setups throughout practice because it needn't concern itself with qualifying.

But should those teams have that luxury?

It depends which folks you ask.

Of course, sponsors and owners within the threshold love it. Those outside despise it. I sat in the No. 36 transporter with Bill Davis Racing competition director Tommy Baldwin at Charlotte, and he was spitting fire about the rule. Same goes for the Red Bull boys and Michael Waltrip Racing.

Michael Waltrip
Chris Graythen/Getty Images Michael Waltrip has a fully funded team, just not one making races despite sometimes having a faster car than drivers that make the race on points.

Once outside the top 35, it's awfully difficult to get back in.

Some will tell you the very reason the rule was implemented no longer exists.

"When it was first handed out, it was good because there were only 45 teams showing up each week, and only 30 or 32 good race teams," Baldwin explained. "Now there's 48 good teams showing up each week. At this point, with so many good teams, [the rule is] not really good for everybody right now.

"NASCAR is different from any other sport. New teams in other sports have a lot of good things happen to them early on, like first-round picks, lottery picks; they get to take players from other teams. We don't have that option right now. It's hard for new sponsors to come into NASCAR with a new race team.

"If they don't do anything, there will be four or five teams go out of business. If NASCAR isn't going to do anything to make a change, they're going to hurt a lot of companies."

It's tough to disagree that new teams could struggle to garner sponsorship. Unless you're JR Motorsports, it's a tough sell in corporate America to say, "Hey, man, these other 35 teams are guaranteed in the show and we're not. But man, we'd still love to take your $13 million."

Conversely, there is no debating that the spirit of the rule is viable.

"We were part of the rule originally starting, so we think it's great," said Ginn Racing CEO and GM Jay Frye. "The spirit of the rule is good. It's to protect the teams that run every week. We have substantially more teams now that are well-funded.

"That's a good problem. But every few years, it cycles back down where there's 45 teams that run full time every week. We had two teams outside the top 35 to start this year and made nine of 10 races. You still control your own destiny. It's pretty simple: Go fast, get in."

Baldwin had an intriguing concept.

"I think going back to the old rule, personally, is probably the best way," he said. "Taking the top 35 in speed. Each team gets six provisionals, total. That way, at least everybody gets a chance.

"If you can't make the race six times, your program's not very good. And then, if you're in the top 12 for the Chase standings that week, the provisionals don't count against you. That way those guys are taken care of, and rewarded."

Not a bad idea. Jeff Burton is the mayor of NASCAR, so I thought I'd ask his opinion. He said the top-35 concept is not only viable, but necessary. Key word there: concept.

Burton said he'd like to see the number of teams guaranteed in the field expanded to 40, if not 43.

"In a perfect world, it'd be 43 teams and sponsors that knew they'd be in the race, the same way football and basketball and baseball and hockey and soccer teams, other forms of sports except ours, where teams know they're going to play -- golf being an exception," Burton said. "But the costs to play golf are a very, very small percentage of owning a race team.

"We have an environment today that tempts sponsors into getting involved, but in some cases can't deliver the goods. The competition to make races is so strong, and there's so many teams, that we'll have sponsors that aren't getting what they need.

"Car owners, too. And they can't continue to be involved in the sport if they can't get what they need out of it. So the top-35 concept is correct. If you wanted to make it top-40, then sponsors and car owners would have a much clearer understanding of what they're up against."

It seems that something needs to be done. One thing NASCAR could do to help is require teams to commit to running a certain number of races. Just showing up at Daytona and Talladega and Indy to run a fourth car shouldn't be allowed. Run 20 races or don't run any.

NASCAR is the only major sport -- and again, golf doesn't count because the finances involved are so different -- where a guy can raise his hand and say, 'Hey, I want to play.' If he has a car, a crew and a driver, he can show up at Fontana and spin a Hollywood yarn.

And if he managed to do so, another guy, possibly a full-time team with a brand-new sponsor and a heckuva lot more speed, packs it up and heads east.

Fair? Depends which side of the line you're on.

Marty,

Do you think it's time Michael Waltrip steps aside and put someone else in the No. 55? Would it improve his organization if he handed over the keys to a younger driver?

-- Mellissa Stevens, Winslow, Ariz.

When someone hails from Winslow, it's awfully difficult to steer clear of the teed-up Eagles joke.

As for Waltrip, I think he'd be better served, and happier, if he retired from competition, put another driver in the seat, and focused on appeasing sponsors and improving the organization. Easy for me to say sitting behind this keyboard, I know. But I truly believe that.

Michael Waltrip Racing general manager Ty Norris tells me Waltrip feels he can be competitive as a driver but will do whatever it takes to elevate the program.

"Michael Waltrip will be an owner first in all of his decisions," Norris said.

Marty,

I was so disappointed that the Coca-Cola 600 came down to fuel mileage. It's the longest race of the year and to sit through that whole thing and have it be decided like that was a huge letdown.

-- Jason Thomas, Charlotte, N.C.

I don't know what to tell you, Jason. From my vantage point, it was thrilling, far more exciting than another nonchalant Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson Gatorade twirl in Victory Lane. Maybe it's just me, but I don't understand the rap on fuel-mileage finishes. I get antsy late in races when fuel mileage becomes a factor. Not knowing whether a guy can make it to the end keeps me interested, every wiggle is captivating to me.

Plus, look at context. Over the final few laps of that race, you had two drivers who'd never won running first and second and another driver everyone wrote off long ago running third. And the guy who prevailed is the nicest guy you'll ever meet. When the media folks are genuinely excited when someone wins a race, you know it's big.

Hello Mr. Marty Smith,

Now that we know the COT is for sure the Car Of Two thousand eight, my question is -- will we continue to see the Impala and Avenger or are Chevy and Dodge going to follow suit with Ford and keep the original Monte Carlo SS and Charger?

I think I read somewhere that Chevy is discontinuing the Monte Carlo so maybe that would answer my question for the Chevy camp. Anyway just thought I would see what you had from behind the scenes of NASCAR on that question. Thanks

-- R-Kay Willardson, Tupelo, Miss.

Both manufacturers are sticking with the original COT model, R-Kay. Terry Dolan from Chevy Racing told me they'll run the Impala SS, and Dodge officials say they're staying with the Avenger.

If I were Chevrolet, I wouldn't change a dadgum thing.

Hey Marty,

Question: With regards to the Chase, which set of points takes precedence: owner or driver points?

Situation: Mark Martin is happily sitting 14th in the points while Regan Smith wallows in 48th. It's not like that factoid matters being as his ride sits securely in sixth place in the owner standings. Does the car make the Chase? Or does the driver make the Chase?

With Mr. Martin expanding his schedule there is the possibility that he makes the Chase come fall. If the points are set by driver, can Mark hop into the 13 or the 14 for the Chase? Just for fun? (I mean really, he seems to be having more fun in the first third of this season than I have ever seen. I used to call him Eeyore for his doom and gloom rants -- at least during Talladega weekends -- now he is far closer to Tigger than ever before).

-- Wade, Miami

The Chase is set by driver's points, Wade. What Martin is doing is ridiculous. He has missed three races and is just 31 points outside the Chase qualification window. In all, he'll miss too many races to make the show, so it's all moot. But there are actually two Chases for the Cup. There's an owner's Chase, as well, and the No. 01 would qualify for that if Smith can continue to run well.

If Martin and Smith (funny, that's my real name: Martin Smith) were to combine for the owner's championship, it'd mean a nice little payday for Ginn Racing. Last year, Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon took home nearly $3.4 million for claiming the owner's points championship with the No. 48.

Marty,

I'm Junior's No. 1 fan. Bring him to our campsite for a beer next week in Pocono. We'll be camping in the infield. You guys look like brothers. Are you married?

-- Carrie, Allentown, Pa.

Indeed I am, Carrie. Happily. With a child. And for the record, it's so refreshing to know I'm loved because I resemble Junior.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.