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NASCAR Notebook for Sunday

by Dave Grayson
Sunday, March 15, 2009

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"Double bubble toil and trouble" is an old witchcraft line borrowed to pinpoint the current status of NASCAR's top 35 in owner's points while also examining the fact that maybe it's time to realize this policy is no longer needed.

As we all know any team within the top 35 listing is automatically guaranteed a starting berth in a NASCAR Sprint Cup 43 car field regardless of how the driver performed during the course of a two lap qualifying run. Any team outside of the top 35 has to endure the pressure of being on the so called go or go home list meaning they have to qualify on speed to make the starting field. Currently the Sprint Cup Series is using the 2008 owner's points until race number five of this year. After the fifth race, next weekend in Bristol, Tennessee, the current 2009 points will become effective. 

The policy of the Top 35 was launched by NASCAR prior to the start of the 2005 racing season. At first it was believed that the policy was designed to protect the presence of the current crop of super star drivers and teams by insuring that they were in the 43 car starting field. There's certainly a lot of merit to that. But the policy was implemented mainly to protect the presence of the American corporations who were spending mega millions in all levels of the sport from individual team sponsorships to specifically themed NASCAR special promotions. NASCAR was concerned that the financial support of these corporations would diminish if the teams they were sponsoring started missing races.

SO, WHO'S CURRENTLY SITTING ON THE OWNER'S POINTS BUBBLE?

Believe it or not it's Mark Martin and his Kellogg’s-Carquest Chevrolet fielded by Hendrick Motorsports. That's right: one of NASCAR's greatest drivers from one of NASCAR greatest teams is currently sitting 35th in the owner's standings and is only 11 points away from finding their name on the go or go home list. This is largely due to extremely harsh racing luck such as the blown tire that led to an early crash in the Atlanta race.

A lot has been said about Martin's current top 35 status especially from the NASCAR themed television show. However we should not be punching the drama button over this one. After all this is one of NASCAR's greatest drivers from one of NASCAR's greatest teams. The run of bad racing luck is bound to go the other way sooner or later. If Martin does fall into the go or go home list it's not likely that qualifying on speed to make a race will be a problem for him. Also, don't expect him to remain that far down on the owner's points very long.

Directly below Martin on the owner's points list is Aric Almirola who is 11 points from the top 35.The young development driver currently sits behind the wheel of the #8 Chevrolet fielded by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. The team has endured sponsorship issues that needs to be resolved soon. In recent weeks team co owner Chip Ganassi went on record as saying they would not be running the car unfunded. That means the  Bristol race next Sunday will crucial for Almirola. This team will have to be prepared to do whatever's necessary to get themselves into the top 35 before the current 2009 owner's points. That's the only way Almirola and company will be able to attract the attention of a potential sponsor.

Sitting directly above Mark Martin, in 34th, is David Gilliland the driver of the #71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet. This Sprint Cup start up team entered the Daytona 500 with driver Mike Wallace but fell victim to the go or go home list and missed the race. TRG signed a four race deal with Gilliland in hopes he could help get the car into the top 35. The mission appears to be on the way to getting accomplished. In three appearances Gilliland has elevated  the team from the bottom of the points list to cracking the top 35. That process was helped by the fact that Gilliland is consistently a good qualifier who his team into the starting line up. Like the Almirola team, TRG motorsports needs to good run at Bristol to elevate their status in the owner's points in order to attract additional, and badly needed, sponsorship funds.

IS IT TIME TO FINALLY BURST THE BUBBLE?

Assuming that the top 35 in owner's points policy actually had that big of a need to begin with, the answer is yes: it's time to let it go. Any form of auto racing should be based on performance. It should be based on the driver's ability to push himself and his machine to the ragged edge to get the job done. That includes the process of qualifying. The driver and the car is either fast enough to make the 43 car field on Coors Light Pole Day or it isn't. If the car isn't fast enough then the team packs up, drives home and starts the process of being better prepared for the following race.

So, what happens if a super star driver and team fails to make the show? Believe or not the show goes on. Someone yells "gentlemen start your engines" the green flag is dropped over the 43 car field and we all watch the race.

A case in point occurred last year in the NHRA-National Hot Rod Association. The nation's premiere drag racing series was making their annual visit to Brainerd, Minnesota when the unthinkable happened within the ranks of the funny car division. 14 time series champion John Force failed to make the qualifying cut off. There were shock waves over the fact that one of the sport's genuine icons would not be participating in the final rounds the following day.

Guess what? The show started as scheduled on Sunday afternoon, the grandstands were packed, the elimination rounds were extremely exciting and it turned into some riveting television on ESPN2 that drag racing fans all over the nation enjoyed.

NASCAR, its corporate partners, the teams and their sponsors as well as the fans would not like the thought of one of its super stars failing to make a race. Can you even comprehend a Sprint Cup race without Dale Jr in the field? But if something like that did occur the show would go on and it would likely be a good race.       
 
It's time for individual performance levels to again become the benchmark of NASCAR racing. The concept worked for many decades throughout the sport's history and should have never been modified to begin with.

The removal of the top 35 in owner's point policy would also terminate another procedure that came from it: the swapping and purchasing of the owner's points. Don't even get me started on that issue.

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