|SOURCE: Outside The Track Editorial Photography|
We haven’t always had 43-car fields. In fact, before 1998, every Sprint Cup field was a different size according to track length. This isn’t the first time field sizes have been cut, either - the XFINITY Series went from 43 to 40 in 2013 and the Trucks from 36 to 32 just last year. But what’s just happened in the Cup Series is very different - by reducing field sizes by three and also instituting a medallion system, the RTA has created not just a floor, but a ceiling. And in so doing, they’ve damaged an integral part of the sport.
Up until this year, whether or not you could compete in Sprint Cup was determined largely by two things: qualifying speed and your team’s rank in owner points. It was a simple meritocracy: if your team wasn’t performing or just wasn’t fast enough, you weren’t going to finish very well if you made the show at all. If you continued to struggle for too long and couldn’t receive financial support, the numbers alone would close your team.
For some teams within the RTA, this scenario is very much a reality. Tommy Baldwin Racing, which this year fields the No. 7 Chevrolet for Regan Smith, last year scaled back from two cars to just one, having spent five years trying to expand. Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 will run full-time for the first time in 2016, but only because they were able to merge with Circle Sport and receive support from Richard Childress. Premium Motorsports, which will field up to two cars in 2016 and lease its medallion to HScott Motorsports, contains the remnants of eight different Sprint Cup teams from 2012.
But this scenario is not the same for Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, and the like, which have gobbled up the majority of the 36 medallions. There has never been a danger that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would miss a race, or that Matt Kenseth wouldn’t find sponsorship to replace The Home Depot. But that’s the fallacy the RTA built the charter proposal - and the need for it - upon. The multi-car programs insist that they really have been in danger, that the value of their teams isn’t enough to keep the lights on. Yet still, through this charter agreement, they’ve granted themselves added privileges they never needed in the first place to secure spots they were never in danger of losing.
But that’s not all. Through the “good standing” requirement, RTA teams can oust people from the group of 36. The initial interpretation of this rule was to eliminate “start-and-parks,” again falling into the myth that teams do so as some kind of scam and not to survive and build their programs. But the rule is much broader than that - if a team simply isn’t finishing well on a consistent basis, their charter can be rescinded. This is a big problem because there haven’t been any “start-and-park” teams in Sprint Cup for the last two seasons, meaning that any Cup team can finish last in today’s NASCAR. Racing is an unpredictable sport, and a streak of bad luck isn’t unheard of. Thus, it’s very likely that the Baldwin, Leavine, and Premium cars to name a few can be kicked out very early on by the program that was supposed to protect them.
Defenders of the charter system are quick to point to those final four spots in the 40-car field, saying that teams without a medallions aren’t prevented from qualifying or competing. The first problem with this is obvious - there used to be 43-car fields, and now there’s three fewer chances of qualifying than before. The second will come into play when teams start to fall out of the chartered 36. The few teams already without a medallion will have an even harder time trying to qualify as they’ll have to compete against a growing number of ejected teams. The third is due to the inflexibility of the barrier between drivers with and without medallions. A medallion may be purchased or loaned, but the cost is based on demand with no oversight, meaning that even if the applying team can afford the fee on top of cars, equipment, tires, etc., the locked-in teams can still pick and choose which of the applying teams they feel like welcoming. Then, when combined with the equally-nebulous “good standing” rule, that same team can have its medallion revoked again for not finishing well enough, requiring them to pay the fee all over again. It’s a brutal business model much more perverse than the one already in place, allowing the big teams to watch the small ones fight each other to the death.
This scrum for the final few starting spots in the field also creates a logjam that will prevent any new start-up teams from breaking into the sport for years to come. As I stated in my opinion piece last month, it is the Top 35 Rule Version 2.0, re-branded to sound less offensive. NASCAR has no shortage of drivers trying to break into Sprint Cup - the problem has for years now been a lack of teams. Just nine years ago, 61 cars arrived to attempt the 2007 Daytona 500, creating two Duel races with 31 and 30 cars. Big names and teams were sent home from this and several other races that season, many because they were brand-new and didn’t have any points to fall back on. With every DNQ, the hole just went deeper and it was impossible to break into the Top 35. The medallion system makes this impossible task a hard-and-fast rule, adding arbitrary costs and performance requirements to make it that much more difficult. And it’s doing it at a time where both drivers and the sport need to welcome more new teams into the fold. In short, it’s counterproductive to the growth of the sport.
It’s already hard to make it into a Sprint Cup race. Simply getting a car to the track and taking one qualifying lap requires the work of many staff and crew members, both seen and unseen. To earn a good finish, to get to the next race, much less the whole season - these are accomplishments in and of themselves. But the RTA doesn’t care about any of this. They turned a meritocracy into a common entitlement program. In exchange for a little added security for its richest members, those clutching medallions have slammed shut a door though which every single one of them have passed, saying “forget you, I’ve got mine.” They have shoved the sport one more step away from the guy who soaped numbers on his Lincoln at the Charlotte Fairgrounds in 1949, making the culture in the garage area a little more bland, a little more predictable. And with every medallion fee they collect, they are selling the soul of NASCAR racing.