I don't like to bash on NASCAR...really. I have no issue with NASCAR, and admit to enjoy watching some of the races. I'll probably watch Daytona, and like watching races on any of the non-1.5 mile tracks. But sometimes they throw something out there that is so ridiculous it needs its own response. And this is one of them.
According to this article on ESPN.com, with the race less than two weeks away, apparently four drivers have "swapped" their way into the field via shifts in owners' points.
From the article:
"Paul Menard, Trevor Bayne, Steve Wallace and Grand-Am driver Andy Lally are guaranteed spots in the Feb. 20 Daytona 500 after offseason point swaps with top-35 teams from the 2010 Sprint Cup season."
Great. So now the race has (at least) four guys who pretty much did NOTHING to deserve to drive in the series' biggest event. This is an absolute joke.
Although let's be honest, the qualifying process itself is the joke. The front row is decided and the rest of the field races for the other 41 spots in two 125-mile sprints. Problem is, most of the field is already set, only a driver or two in each race needs to finish high enough to "race" himself into the field.
The Twin 125 races are unique, and I do like them if they were used properly. If the field was actually set according to finishing order of every car -- and everyone, without exception, outside of the Top 20 in each race went home -- it would be something that would be really exciting to watch. Instead, 90 percent of the cars/drivers are already in the field, so while there is incentive to win I just don't understand the purpose of the races.
And if a driver has an issue with his car or gets in an accident, he's still safe if he is part of the Top 35 or is eligibile for any number of exemptions. While their starting position is based on where they finish, there is really no drama after that. At a restrictor plate track starting position matters little anyway as it has been shown many times you can drive from the back and win the race.
I don't care if they have the Top 35 and other policies in place at any other track or any other race during the year. Just like in the IndyCar series I don't care that everyone makes the rest of the races in the series.
I get that NASCAR doesn't want any of its top drivers, or any of their multi-million dollar sponsors on the sideline during the sport's Super Bowl. At the same time, I'm sure Marlboro wasn't pleased when its sponsored drivers didn't make the 1995 Indy 500, just like Miller was miffed when Bobby Rahal didn't make the show in 1993. It also didn't sit well with the fans, just like Paul Tracy missing the show in 2010. But that's sports and that happens.
It's also understood by all parties involved (fans, teams, sponsors) because Indy has never wavered in its procedures. You HAVE to qualify, there are no exceptions. I know that owners can swap drivers for the race and move them to the rear of the field but to me that's different because the car has already qualified. The car "earned" its way into the field.
Here is the way I see it. If you are going to win something so significant that it is associated with you for the rest of your life, it should be one of the hardest things you have ever done. Winning the Indy 500 is hard, just like winning the NCAA basketball tournament, the U.S. Open (golf or tennis) or the World Series. The Green Bay Packers had to win its final regular season game just to get to the playoffs, then won four road games in five weeks to win the Super Bowl. That's hard...actually it's close to impossible. But it's why they took home the trophy and get a shiny ring.
I'm not trying to say that winning Daytona isn't difficult, because it is. But there is no "meat grinder" process that's involved there. Don't qualify on the front row, no big. Crash in one of the 125s? So what? We'll just take our Top 35 slot and go to the rear of the field. Heck, you can even fail tech inspection so badly that your crew chief is fined, suspended and banned from the grounds (Chad Knaus) but your driver can still drive in the race, and in this instance, win it from the back of the field, as Jimmie Johnson did in 2006.
And therein lies a difference between the 500s...at Indy you can have a bad month or a couple of bad days and will ultimately spend race day watching on TV. At Daytona you can have everything possible go bad leading up to race day and still win. There is just something about it that doesn't sit with me.
You want to call something a "major"? Fine, then take steps really, truly make it one. Top 43 times qualify, everyone else goes home, no exceptions. Otherwise, you can dress it up however you want but in the end it's just another race on the schedule.