Time to scrap the abused past champion's provisional in NASCAR

5/21/2008 - NASCAR
Terry Labonte will be back on the track in a few weeks, whether he deserves to be or not. Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images/NASCAR

The past champion's provisional has become the chump's freebie. And it's time to do away with a rule that no longer works as it was intended.

NASCAR had the right idea years ago when it saved a spot on the starting grid of every Cup event for a former Cup champion. It was a way to protect a driver who had earned some respect by winning a title previously in his career.

That honorable concept has evolved into a travesty of musical chairs in the cockpit, a way for struggling teams to circumvent the qualifying process and get a free pass into the 43-car field.

Terry Labonte will replace Kyle Petty in five events this summer while Petty works for TNT and attends his daughter's wedding. Chad McCumbee will drive for Petty in two other races.

Labonte is 51. The Watkins Glen road race last August was his last Cup event, one of only three Cup races he competed in last season.

But Labonte is a two-time Cup champion, which means the No. 45 Dodge has a guaranteed spot in the field when Labonte sits in the car.

That's true unless recently-retired Dale Jarrett decides to hop back in a car for one of those races. His 1999 championship trumps Labonte's 1996 title.

The most recent Cup champion gets the free spot, but the full-time past champions are in the top 35 and have an automatic spot in the field because of it. Labonte's return knocks 52-year-old Bill Elliott off the provisional since his title came in 1988. Elliott has raced five times this year for the Wood Brothers in the No. 21 Ford.

The Wood Brothers Ford and the Petty Enterprises Dodge both rank below the top 35 in owner's points, so both cars have to qualify on speed at each event unless they use their half-century-old ringer.

This entire process makes a mockery of the past champ's provisional. The intent was to reward a former champion who still was racing full-time in the Cup series. Now it's a parlor game of tricks and gimmicks.

Penske Racing played it perfectly before the season started, giving rookie Sam Hornish Jr. the owner's points from the No. 2 Dodge since Kurt Busch could use the past-champ freebie if he needed it in the first five races.

NASCAR officials wisely said no to a similar tactic by Michael Waltrip Racing when Jarrett quit. MWR wanted David Reutimann to keep his points in the No. 00 Toyota even though he was moving to Jarrett's car. Rookie Michael McDowell moved to Reutimann's car, which had more points than the No. 44 Camry.

NASCAR wouldn't allow an in-season swap on earned points, which was a step in the right direction.

But the continuing use, or misuse, of past champions to get a free ride shows NASCAR needs to go a step further and eliminate the rule. It was a good idea, but teams have abused the principle.

Don't allow teams to resort to this ploy any longer. Hiring a driver who won a title 20 years ago, or 12 years ago, but no longer competes full-time, isn't what this provisional was meant to be.

An interesting 500 grid

The starting grid for the 2008 Indianapolis 500 on Sunday (ABC, noon ET) has a few interesting bits of trivia. It includes these notable items:

Move the All-Star race
Lowe's Motor Speedway officials do a stellar job with the annual All-Star race, but it's time to rotate the event to other facilities.

Moving the show around would be a great way to promote the Cup Series in other markets hungry for additional NASCAR racing.

For one thing, it could help solve NASCAR's problem for places wanting a second Cup date, like Las Vegas and Kansas City.

NASCAR also could consider rotating the event to tracks that don't have a Cup date -- Nashville, Iowa, Milwaukee or Kentucky (if the lawsuit ever officially ends).

Moving the event to other parts of the country would generate a buzz about how the race would play out on a different track. But it isn't likely to happen because the NASCAR teams don't want to lose a home date.

Goodness knows these teams have the worst travel schedule in sports, so getting two consecutive weekends at home in the Charlotte area is a major bonus.

They could compromise a little and have the All-Star race at Rockingham or Darlington on a rotating basis, but neither facility has the seating capacity Lowe's has.

So moving it around probably isn't an option, even though it's the best thing for the sport.

Making his move
NHRA Pro Stock racer Dave Connolly could benefit from the Countdown playoff format more than any other driver this season.

Connolly missed the first five events after his team lost its primary sponsor, but he's making up for lost time now. Connolly won at Bristol on Sunday night for new sponsor Charter Communications after making it to the finals of the St. Louis event two weeks ago.

He's up to 14th in the standings, only 83 points from a top-10 spot that earns a place in the six-race playoff. Connolly still has nine races to get inside the top 10.

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