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NASCAR qualifying system awards mediocrity
Pick a sport—any sport—and you’ll find a paradigm for the survival of the fittest and fastest.

Ideally, a sport is a meritocracy that rewards performance and penalizes mediocrity. The faster you go, the better your result. Whether you’re running the 100 meters in the Olympics, swimming the 200-meter butterfly or making a 300-mile-per-hour run in a funny car, the object is to go faster than your opponents. In NASCAR racing, however, going faster than your opponent isn't always a guaranteed path to success. Never was that more glaring than during the Oct. 5 qualifying session for the UAW-Ford 500 Nextel Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway. Those time trials came straight from the Theater of the Absurd.

To recap, 51 drivers attempted to qualify for the event, but going faster than the next guy was no guarantee you’d be allowed to race on Sunday. In fact, the drivers who posted the ninth, 10th and 11th fastest times failed to make the show.

The driver with the eighth-best time, Dale Jarrett, qualified for the race but was required to start 43rd. The driver with the slowest overall speed, Ken Schrader, made the field, as did two drivers whose times were disallowed because of rules infractions discovered during post-qualifying inspection.

The slowest of the eight drivers who failed to qualify for the event, Kevin Lepage, was faster than 15 drivers who were allowed to race. Lepage, in fact, posted a quicker time than points leader Jeff Gordon and three other competitors in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup. It didn’t matter, because NASCAR’s qualifying rules reward cumulative performance in the races themselves more than a single performance in one qualifying session—and that needs to change.

The anomalies in the qualifying results stem from a system that guarantees a starting position to each of the top 35 cars in the owners’ standings. To remain in the top 35, a car must qualify for races and accumulate points based on its finishing position. More at cupscene.com

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