So-long, top-35 rule.
NASCAR announced Tuesday that the qualifying procedure for its Sprint Cup Series will undergo significant changes, largely reverting to its pre-2005 format. No longer with the top-35 cars in car owner points have a guaranteed position in the upcoming race.
Rather, the field will be filled by the 36 fastest cars in time trials, the next six highest cars in owner points, and either the most recent past champion not in the field or (if no champion needs the spot) a seventh car based off owner points. One change from that style of qualifying's previous incarnation is that there will be no limit on the number of car owner "provisional" spots a team can use. In the past, teams had a limited number of provisionals available to them, meaning that there would be many late-season races with relatively top names and sponsors being sent home because they didn't have any provisionals left.
The situation came to a head in October 2004 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. An incredible 58 cars attempted the race, and among the 15 drivers sent home were rookies Scott Wimmer and Scott Riggs. They had no provisionals left when they pulled into Atlanta, and when qualifying was done, they had to head north two days early.
A pair of rookies left to flip burgers on Sunday afternoon instead of strapping in and racing was not such a big deal. After all, both had been dwarfed by Kasey Kahne all season. The big deal was that when Wimmer and Riggs' teams pulled out of Atlanta after failing to qualify, they took the high-profile Caterpillar and Valvoline sponsorships with them.
NASCAR implemented the top-35 rule for 2005 as a means to protect the companies who bankroll the sport on a full-time basis from the loss of exposure and the all-around embarrassment of being sent to the house with the race left to be run. Both Riggs and Wimmer would have qualified had the rule been around in October 2004, validating the rule's merit.
Over the years, the need for the rule has dwindled significantly due in large part to the economic climate. There are at best 45 or 46 full-time race teams, and a handful of those have very little funding and therefore start-and-park each week. There is little worry that a car with a major sponsor wouldn't be able to make the show either by being one of the 36 fastest cars or using one of those six - or seven, depending on the past champion situation - provisionals.
Car owners in the mid-20s through 35th were assisted a great deal by the rule, particularly in firming up deals for the early season races. Knowing that the previous season's owner points would be used for the first five races (that number will be reduced to three starting next year) and that, as a top-35 team, they were locked into those races allowed them to approach sponsors and say "Look, put your logo on our car for the Daytona 500. You're guaranteed to be in that race."
Once the season reaches it's second quarter and a team has solidified its gap over the 36th-placed team (usually one which starts and parks and finishes at the rear of the field weekly), the same is true. They can approach a sponsor and say "Here, you'll definitely be in the show if you slap your name on the side of our race car."
That guarantee for those owners is no longer there, which is the downside to the change. Stock car team owners, particularly at the far end of the garage, aren't the sniveling billionaires owners in other sports are perceived as. They are independent contractors who poured their blood, sweat, and tears - not to mention a ton of cash - into getting to this level, and anything that protects and aids their investment into the sport is a good thing.