Friday, February 16, 2007

NASCAR issues for newbies: Qualifying

Getting into a NASCAR Nextel Cup race can be either very easy or supremely difficult. This is because of something called "owners points". It rewards teams that have been consistent in the championship, by giving the top 35 cars at any given time a guaranteed spot in the race. Note that it's not top 35 drivers. A team owener can have a different driver every race, but it will still be about total points accumlated by that car so far that season. For the first five races of the season, total owner points for the previous season are counted.

Teams that go out each week and race are more likely to be in the top 35 than those that are "part-timers". Perhaps these teams don't have the budget for a full-season. Or perhaps they only enter those races that are in close proximity to their workshop. Whatever the reason is, their inability to commit to a full season carries a price, and that price is not being guaranteed a spot for the race.

There's a problem though: there's 51 teams that are full-time in 2007. So even if a team has committed to the whole season, they still may not get in. That's an awful lot of money, time and commitment at risk, since on any given day 8 or more full-time teams will be going home after qualifying. If there's a weekend where a lot of part-time teams entering, it can be even harder. This weekend's Daytona 500 saw 60 entries. Of those, 35 were guaranteed a spot. The remaining 8 spots were taken by 2 part-time teams and 6 full-time teams. Seven part-time teams went home, but a staggering ten full-time teams didn't make it in either.

And when a team misses out on one race, it gets progressively harder to get in in future. Say you're 36th in owner points, 1 point ahead of 37th. They make it into a race and you don't. In that weekend, they'll make enough points to put you into 37th. Now you're even further away from the magic 35th position. You'll have to qualify again next week. Say you miss again, you'll slip even further. Even if you do succeed in getting in to a couple of races, it takes time to get back into the top 35, and each time you miss out on qualifying you're back a step. As soon as you make it into the top 35, the chances of earning enough points at each race to stay there increase dramatically. Just like the modern American nightmare, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. What makes it even worse is this: say you struggle through a season outside the top 35, you're guaranteed to have to qualify for the first five races next season. And as we've discovered, it's ever so easy to slip up and be playing catch-up constantly. One poor finish that drops a team outside the top 35 can sentence them to YEARS of heartache. And the less a team makes it into a race, the less likely it is that they will be able to secure sponsorship or good drivers, further adding to the downward spiral.

I've painted a grim picture, as I did on Wednesday about restrictor plate racing. So, just like Wednesday, I'll offer a solution. In this case, my solution comes from the home of Busch Series rookie Marcos Ambrose: Australia. The top stock car series down there is the V8 Supercar Championship. I talk about it frequently on this blog (they also have a second tier series, called the Fujitsu Development Series, which functions like NASCAR's Busch series). There are a finite number of spots on the V8 grid, but the teams which occupy those spots are always guaranteed a place, because each spot is franchised. To get onto the V8 grid you must buy a franchise. If a team goes out of business it may sell the franchise (which is a valuable asset) to another team or back to the governing body. Ownership of the franchise carries certain obligations, one of which is to show up at every race. If that's not possible, very large fines are levied, just like in the WRC when a manufacturer pulls out halfway through a season.

I suggest NASCAR switch to the grid franchise system. Yes, it locks out new teams from joining the championship, but if a team is sufficiently prepared to run at this top level, they probably have the money to buy out another team. There will ALWAYS be teams that are struggling and looking to perhaps get out, and cashing out their franchise makes leaving the series a more attractive proposition, than continuing on in lame-duck fashion. The franchise system protects a team's investment. The system could be tweaked slightly, perhaps to allow for 40 franchises and 3 open spots for any other team looking to enter.

Of course there will be critics of this idea that say teams that aren't performing well shouldn't be in a race. I agree, but by the same token, a team that has made the financial commitment to a full-time program shouldn't have their investment jeapordized. The current system shows too much inequity between those in the top 35 and those outside it.

One final option is a tiered qualifying approach. How about this?: the top 20 teams in owners points are guaranteed a spot. Teams 21-30 go through an additional pre-qualifying where they race for positions 21-28. The times of the slowest two go into a final pre-qualification with all remaining teams for the final 15 spots. This opens up extra spots and makes it less likely for a team to get stuck in the downward spiral situation I outlined above. Note that the final grid would determined by actual times, not by the grouping in which the time was recorded.

What do you think? Franchises, tiered qualifying or keep it like it is?


Clive said...

Seems very complicated to me. Why not just make everyone qualify?

rob ijbema said...

if this is for newbies,i would hate to see the complicated version!
How about 185 points for a win,tjeeez,but the racing is great!!

Peely said...

Whilst I appreciate that time and effort that you have gone to, to detail information about Nascar there are a few things that you should consider:-

1) Being English you doubtlessly remember Scalextrics. Tearing off the plastic of your first set, I'm sure with all of your youthful imagination the last thing you would create would be a loop. Unless you were completely retarded or had the imagination of a small privet hedge.
2) It is an insult to driving to call it motor sport. If all roads only contained left hand corners, then and only then could Nascar be considered driving.
3) Nascar undoubtedly takes balls... driving at top speed around and around in a circle. Dizzyness must take it's toll. Why not save money and have all the 'drivers' spin around in the car park until they fall over. Just as entertaining.
4) The reason people like Nascar is because they can see the action up close and watch the crashes. Which begs the question, why not go to Monster Truck or Dirt bike Racing. That way all the WT will be in one place...