(Patrick is already locked into the 2012 Daytona 500 thanks to a deal between SHR and TBR)
You most likely already know Danica Patrick is making her full-time move to NASCAR in 2012.
But without yet even turning one competitive lap in a Sprint Cup car, Patrick has already locked herself into a starting spot for the season-opening Daytona 500.
How is this possible you ask?
Just chalk it up to NASCAR math.
The annual ritual of swapping points, creating alliances and trumping up partnerships to manipulate the rule allowing teams finishing in the Top 35 of the point standings last season a guaranteed start in the first five races of the new campaign has once again reared its ugly head.
Only this time it’s not just a simple transaction between owners swapping points accrued by one to allow another to field a car in the biggest race of the season. The latest maneuvering is a shell game of epic proportions that somehow puts Patrick in car technically owned by Tommy Baldwin Racing while still employed by Stewart-Haas Racing.
A room full of Philadelphia lawyers would take days to figure out the legal machinations that created this “collaborative partnership” between SHR and TBR. But at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter how things ended up but rather the path that allows this ridiculous practice to happen in the first place.
When NASCAR first instituted the Top 35 rule a few years ago the intent was to provide a guarantee for teams and sponsors that support the entire series. Basically if a team stays inside the first thirty five of the standings they are locked into the next race and don’t have to worry about qualifying to make the field.
While NASCAR contends the rule “protects” teams and sponsors as well as fans, who are ensured the “stars” of the sport will compete in every event, it has done so at the expense of competition and credibility.
By trying to serve the business side of the sport, all NASCAR has done is compromised the competitive element and its own integrity.
Qualifying has been reduced to a simple placement of cars into the starting line-up with none of the drama remaining that used to draw sizeable crowds to some tracks in anticipation of the racing weekend.
The popular Gatorade Duel qualifying races at Daytona, once one of the most exciting days of the season and certainly of Speedweeks, is now only a shell of its former self. The inclusion of the Top 35 policy into the equation of who already has made the race and what drivers have their Daytona 500 lives on the line with a bad finish – all part of what made the Thursday before the 500 so special – is now a convoluted mess that requires a slide rule and a calculator to help decipher.
The easy solution is to allow the fastest 36 cars in qualifying into every race and then seed the remaining seven spots with provisionals based on the point standings. That system worked for decades before the dollar signs from potential upset sponsors blurred NASCAR’s vision.
The world would also continue to rotate on its axis if Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson or Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed a race. Other sports have proven they can survive should a star not be up to the necessary level of performance on a particular weekend.
Should Tiger Woods fail to make the cut on a Friday (a scenario that has lately happened plenty of times by the way), oh well the PGA Tour goes on. The legendary John Force has missed qualifying for NHRA events before and drag racing has somehow found a way to survive.
Then to make matters even worse there is the blatant bending of the rules to shift around owner points every January.
To be fair to Stewart and Baldwin, they have not done anything “wrong” or that several other owners haven't executed in the last few years. Richard Petty, Richard Childress and Roger Penske are just a few of the names that massaged the rules to their advantage in order to lock in new entries in their stables.
Just last season both Steven Wallace and even Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne were beneficiaries of their owners working out deals to get them into the biggest race of the year.
However having the lightning rod Patrick involved this time around has certainly taken the practice to a much greater level of awareness.
Quite frankly it doesn’t do much for Patrick in terms of trying to prove herself as a stock car driver when she literally gets handed a coveted spot at Daytona. In many eyes, she’s done nothing to earn the position except to work for a team owner who obviously has a creative business mind.
Last week NASCAR took a major step forward by announcing it was outlawing “secret fines” and making all penalties toward drivers who made derogatory comments about the sport public. It was the right move and one that brings more transparency to a sport that sometimes desperately needs to show skeptical fans all is on the up and up.
Now NASCAR needs to eradicate the Top 35 rule or at the very least enforce teams follow a "use ‘em or lose ‘em" policy the following season. No buying, selling, swapping or other game of smoke and mirrors allowed.
If not just save your money. Perhaps with a large enough checkbook even you can buy your way into starting the 2013 Daytona 500.
As is the case with Patrick, no experience is necessary.
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