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Top-35 Rule has Run its Course
How much more intriguing would qualifying be at Indianapolis Motor Speedway if we didn't know Dale Earnhardt Jr. was guaranteed a spot in Sunday's Sprint Cup race?
How many more people would pay to sit in the stands and watch qualifying if they knew there was a chance Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart or any of the big names might miss the race if they hit the wall or blew an engine during their two-lap run?
Maybe one day soon we'll find out.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton confirmed that NASCAR is discussing with teams about options in each of the top three series that could do away with the top-35 rule to make qualifying more significant in 2013.
"People want to see it go back to where speed gets you in," Pemberton said. "Performance and speed is what people want to see it takes to get you in a race."
It is time. The top-35 rule has run its course.
You could argue that the rule served a useful purpose when NASCAR introduced it in 2005. It guaranteed that the top 35 teams – and their sponsors – in owners' points would get into the field at a time when the all-important sponsors were looking for guarantees.
It theoretically helped reduce the possibility of a field filler making the race over an organization that invested big-time money and effort into the sport at a time when 48-plus cars regularly showed up to make the 43-car field.
Those no longer are valid arguments. Only one car was sent home in each of the past two races at New Hampshire and Daytona. Only two were sent home the race before that at Kentucky.
In 2005, 14 cars failed to make the field for the Daytona 500, and nine didn't qualify for the Brickyard 400 at Indy.
There still was some intrigue then.
There's none now.
Qualifying has become more meaningless than ever. Track owners see it in declining attendance for that day, regardless of whether it's on a Friday or Saturday.
NASCAR hears about it, too.
The top-35 rule does more harm than good. Imagine how different Jeff Gordon's season might be if David Reutimann hadn't stayed out at Martinsville Speedway trying to keep the No. 10 car in the top 35 for Danica Patrick next season? He likely would have won the race and be a viable contender for a wild-card spot.
The rule also creates controversy -- and sometimes anger -- when teams buy owner points to guarantee a driver a spot in the first five races of the upcoming season, when the previous year's top-35 points are used.
If NASCAR follows through with its plan to eliminate the rule, all that will be eliminated.
It should be eliminated.
Drivers like Patrick should have to qualify for the first five races just like everyone else.
As Marcus Smith, the president of Charlotte Motor Speedway and the chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., said, "NASCAR is a performance sport. It ought to reward the best performance."
The top-35 rule rewards teams with the most money and resources.
"For the past few years, qualifying really has been a moot point," Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell said. "Our attendance has lagged, and interest is not there. You're basically coming out to see where somebody is going to start.
"Why would somebody want to do that? [Eliminating the top-35 rule] could generate more interest, increase the level of competition. I think it's a positive."
The way the rule is today, a team in the top 35 doesn't even have to make a qualifying run to make the race.
Under one of the proposals NASCAR has floated to teams, the fastest 38 cars on speed would make the field, provisionals would be given to the four highest in points that didn't make the top 38, and there would be one past-champion's provisional.
Odds are the superstars still would make the field each week, but at least there's a remote possibility some would not. Take Kasey Kahne, for example. When he was 32nd in points early in the season, he could have had a bad qualifying run and had four others ahead of him in points with bad runs knock him out.
"At least you don't have to say, 'Well, these are the top 35, let's go see where they start,"' Campbell said of the proposal being considered. "It's more of a mental thing to our fans. That's good. We've got to get interest up."
The best way to increase interest would be to take the 43 fastest cars, period. If Earnhardt or Patrick or anybody has a bad day, that driver goes home. It's a roll of the dice.
"It happens in golf every week," Smith said. "It's a bummer if a guy like Tiger Woods doesn't make the cut, but it happens. I don't know if it would spice up qualifying or not."
Smith doesn't know whether it would sell more tickets for qualifying, either. But he agrees that eliminating the top-35 rule is the step in the right direction.
And while NASCAR is at it, Smith would like to see last place pay nothing. He would like to see the five or six spots before that pay little to nothing, with the excess money going to the winner to help eliminate start-and-park teams. They're not going to show up if it's not profitable.
But that's an issue for another day.
Let's stay focused on the top-35 rule and hope NASCAR eliminates it.