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What Got Danica Patrick In Daytona 500 Questioned, But Don’t Expect Changes

Team owner Tommy Baldwin has entered into a partnership with Stewart Haas Racing that will allow Danica Patrick, who is scheduled to compete in 10 races with Tony Stewart's team, a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500. This has raised questions about the validity of NASCAR's top-35 rule.

When I learned that Danica Patrick was guaranteed a starting spot in the Daytona 500 because Stewart Haas Racing, which plans to enter her in 10 races this year, had brokered a deal with Tommy Baldwin Racing, I knew there would be negative reaction.

In the arrangement Stewart Haas obtained TBR’s owner points. Since Baldwin’s No. 36 car finished 33rd in points last season it is guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races of this year.

The car will now carry the No. 10 for Patrick. Dave Blaney, who drove what was the No. 36 in 2011, must now qualify or race his way into the Daytona 500.

This news did not sit well with many. They claim it is a manipulation of NASCAR’s top 35 rule; one that allows a driver who has never started a Sprint Cup race entry into the year’s most prestigious, and financially rewarding, event.

Dave Moody of Sirius XM Radio is very knowledgeable about NASCAR and many times his opinions about its rules and policies hit the bulls’ eye.

Moody pointed out, and I heartily agree, that NASCAR’s top 35 rule has loopholes that teams have routinely used to their benefit.

Therefore, he maintains, Stewart Haas and TBR have done nothing wrong. They are simply taking advantage of what is open to them. And by doing that, they have effectively created a situation that will give Patrick a golden opportunity and, in turn, benefit TBR with either money, technical and pit support – or all three.

What they have done is nothing new. It’s been done routinely over the years and, while it is perfectly legal, it still creates confusion for the fans.

As Moody pointed out there are plenty of them who will ask how an untested rookie like Patrick makes the 500 while established veterans, like Blaney, have to labor to make it.

Moody expresses the opinion that it’s time for NASCAR to clean up this mess and decree that, beginning in 2013, guaranteed starting spots may only be used by the team that earned them a season earlier.

Dave, ol’ boy, you are right. I’m in agreement and I think many other fans and media members are right there in line with us.
But my guess is we are all going to be disappointed.

I certainly don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in NASCAR but, publicly, it has yet to give us any indication it’s going to alter the top 35 system.

I don’t think it really plans – or cares – to do so.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I asked someone in NASCAR management about questions surrounding the rule, I would get an answer something like this:

“As far as we’re concerned a team that has earned a position in the top 35 can do anything it wants with it. It has gained the right.”

And, if you ponder it for a moment, that’s a very logical answer.

While we might think the old way – when qualifying alone determined a field and if a driver wasn’t fast enough he went home – was infallible, think again.

Teams have been fooling around with qualifying rules for decades and it’s been especially prominent for the Daytona 500.

This scenario was played out countless times: At nearly every 500 it seemed there was always at least one top-tier, heavily-sponsored team that failed to qualify for the race.

There were times when such a team couldn’t race its way in through a 125-mile qualifier. There were still other times when the car was destroyed in practice and, without a backup, racing in the 500 was impossible.

The solution was simple. The unfortunate team went to another that had made the race – despite the fact that it had fewer resources.

An offer was made that couldn’t be refused. Would the second-tier team be willing to accept thousands of dollars to allow the big-buck organization’s driver and, most important, its sponsor to take its spot in the 500?

Many times the amount offered was more than the low-rung team could hope to make by actually racing, so it took the deal. It made sense.

NASCAR did nothing to stop the practice.

And it wasn’t limited to Daytona. Other races saw major stars – Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip come to mind – buy their way in.

Essentially, here’s why the top 35 rule came into existence. By the way, the rule states that any team among the top 35 in owner points from one season gets a free ride for the first five events of the current season.

After that, teams among the top 35 are assured a start – in other words, essentially exempt from qualifying – for the remainder of the season, provided they maintained their status.

There was a time when, during a vibrant economy, many teams enjoyed significant sponsorship, perhaps more so than in any other time in NASCAR’s history.

Problem was, not all of them could qualify for every race. And when they failed to do so they knew they were in danger of sponsor dissatisfaction – and a loss of needed income.

Additionally, teams that lost drivers who departed with sponsor in tow felt they were denied earned value and wanted some protection.

NASCAR isn’t stupid. It knew full well that to help its tracks by assuring, in some way, they would have virtually all of the top drivers and teams for their races – and to guarantee major sponsors entry into every event – it came up with the top 35 policy.

Let’s say it has been NASCAR’s way of protecting its assets, both competitive and financial.

And the rule has, for the most part, done exactly that.

Yes, it has loopholes. That’s been made abundantly clear.

But, again, those taking advantage of the gaps are doing nothing wrong.

Many of us decry that it certainly appears somewhat unfair and against the grain of real competition. But it’s reality.

And, right now, I don’t think NASCAR is going to do a thing to change it.

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