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NASCAR’s Car Count: Too few? Too many?

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With the current downturn in the economy in the United States, renewed attention has been focussed on the car count in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup and the other two touring series. Over the winter, the number of full-season teams has been reduced through mergers or closure. This raises the question of whether there will be enough teams to fill the starting lineups race after race as we go through the year.

In the shadow of speculation that there may not be a full field of competitive entires, the bogeyman of the ‘start-and-park’ entry has also been raised by NASCAR officials who are vowing to root out this nefarious practice.

First let’s address the question of whether there will be full fields or not all season long. So far – up to the Bristol weekend – there has been a full field for every one of the 12 races run. And that includes two weekends out west where the tow and travel costs are much higher. In fact, in all but one of these races, there were would-be competitors who were sent home. So the prospect of running full fields in all three series – even the truck series, which is admittedly struggling more than the others – look pretty good..

On the other hand, are there teams with full sponsorship for the season in danger of failing to qualify for any of the Cup races? How important is it that they position themselves within the top-35 security blanket of guaranteed starting positions. Going into Bristol, there are 45 drivers who have attempted to qualify for each of the first five Cup races. That’s just two more than the standard 43 starting positions. It looks like any driver-team combination that can record decent qualifying speeds will be pretty much assured of making the field race after race.

Where there will likely be a scramble among the go-or-go-home hopefuls will be at the two road courses. These races often attract a number of ‘road race specialists’ who have hopes that their special skills may give them an advantage over the oval-track guys – people like Ron Fellows, Boris Said, and Scott Pruett. If they replace a driver in a car in the top 35 in points, they will have a guaranteed start. If they enter an additional car without benefit of owner points, they will be competing with the regular go-or-go-homers for the seven open starting positions. Things will likely get tight at both these races. That’s when the guaranteed 35 starting positions may be pretty valuable.

So what about the spectre of ‘start-and-park’? This is when a team enters the race with no intention of racing to the end. They take advantage of a short field to qualify at the back of the grid, go out for a few laps and then pull in to the garage and retire with ‘handling’ problems – and pocket the prize money paid out for even this lowly finishing result. At the Daytona 500, the smallest payout was over $260,000 – but with 13 cars failing to make the race, you can hardly accuse anyone who made the race of being a bottom-feeding start-and-parker.
Does it ever happen? Yes. Once I was at a race where a driver told me in advance that they were under instructions to park after four laps. Actually they didn’t stop until lap eight. At another race, that same struggling team had two entries and both of them were parked in the garage area – alongside another early retiree – by lap 15. Not one of the drivers never even bothered to lift the hood – and their crews were nowhere in sight.

At one race, I put it to a member of a certain team that one of their entires had all the appearance of a start-and-park deal and I predicted that he would be out of the race within a few laps. By golly, as if to prove me wrong, that guy hung in there – albeit out of contention – well past half -distance.

I wasn’t at Atlanta this year, but it looks like there might have been as many as half-a-dozen start-and-parkers in the truck race. The tell-tale signs are there – retirement after only a few laps for non-specific reasons like ‘handling’. Their reward, prize money of about $8000 – not much once you’ve covered even modest expenses for the weekend.

My advice to NASCAR? Forget about it. Sure there may be a few teams that take advantage of a short field in the Nationwide or the truck series to skim a bit of prize money, but so what. Even with a few non-competing starters, the field is big enough to leave us with lots of racing action up front. We may nudge each other and chuckle at the start-and-park deal, but it’s pretty harmless. We can do without yet another unneeded Big Brother move from NASCAR.

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