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Field of 39 cars at Atlanta smallest in nearly 20 years

There will be 39 cars at the start of Sunday's Sprint Cup race in Atlanta, the fewest cars the series has fielded in a race since 1997. Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images

HAMPTON, Ga. -- NASCAR will have its smallest Sprint Cup field in nearly 20 years when the Folds of Honor 500 goes green Sunday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

It is a sign of the times as "only" 39 cars will start the race in NASCAR's new 40-car maximum field, cut from 43, which had been the maximum since 1998. The most recent race without a full field came in June 2014, when 42 cars started the race at Kentucky. The previous time fewer than 40 cars showed up for a weekend came in September 1993 at Martinsville, and the last time a race started fewer than 40 cars was September 1996, when the North Wilkesboro race was limited to 37 cars.

While NASCAR is trying to spin this as a "full field" of its 36 "chartered" cars, it is fighting a losing battle of perception because it allows 40 cars each week. NASCAR would be better off sticking with promoting the core of its new system: granting more money to owners who have been committed to the sport and encouraging competitive race cars.

That is what the charter system appears to be about, and yes, the new owner just trying to break in with a car, an engine and a little bit of money doesn't have a real shot in the new system without sponsorship. Some view it as a sad day, others say this is the top level of competition in NASCAR and only competitive racing efforts should be on the grid.

NASCAR is trying to encourage strong efforts in several ways. The charter teams get dollars from two pools of money based on participation -- a fixed amount each team gets, and then an amount based on its finishes the past three years. The participation money a non-charter team gets is 35 percent of the fixed amount each charter team gets, which isn't enough -- when combined with the money based on finish that is the same for all teams -- at most races to cover the costs of engine, travel, car preparation, entry fees and personnel.

Charter and non-charter teams vie for the same amount of year-end bonus money that goes to the top 25 owners and drivers. Charter teams also have a performance clause -- they can lose their charter if they are among the three worst charter teams for three consecutive years.

The money set aside for non-charter teams that isn't used because of a field of fewer than 40 cars will go into a pool of money that will be awarded to the three top non-charter teams at the end of the season.

So is NASCAR trying to create a system that can't be played? Or have the owners worked a deal that helps them and stunts competition?

Depending on your view, that's why there are 39 cars in the field Sunday. Two of the non-charter teams -- the Wood Brothers and Premium Motorsports -- have sponsorship, with Premium also having extra funding from leasing its charter this year. One team, TMG Motorsports, doesn't have sponsorship but is trying to build a program.

Mike Hillman, who owns the No. 40 car that failed to qualify at Daytona, estimates that leasing an engine -- one that wouldn't run the full race -- would run $15,000, with another $10,000 for personnel, the $4,730 entry fee and two sets of tires at $4,500 puts a team about at the amount a last-place charter team would earn, which is less than $40,000 at most races. To run the full race, it would cost more for the engine plus tires -- and with the tires being different for Sprint Cup this year than Xfinity, buying old sets at a discount might not be an option, he said.

Only if a non-charter team finishes in the top 10 would it be possible to earn enough money to cover costs just to bring a car and run it, Hillman said.

Fewer small teams also could affect the bigger teams, which often sell used parts and pieces to up-and-coming teams.

"We're not looking at folks to just cherry-pick the [races]," NASCAR chief operating officer Brent Dewar said last week. "We structured this on 36 cars, 36 charters, guaranteed entry of 36 every race. Then we have the ability to increase the field up to 40. . . . We won't be unhappy if there is 39 or 38. We put in an incentive for those who are open to race the full season."

It still is something race fans -- and those in the industry -- will have to get used to as part of the new business model NASCAR put in place for this year.

"I'd rather see it be a full field," 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski said. "I guess I feel like NASCAR is going through its own process, much like the rest of the country is, of trying to decide whether we want to be capitalists or socialists and some days each one sounds good."