Commentary

Top-35 rule unfair and unnecessary

Updated: April 9, 2012, 12:54 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Take a quick visit to my fantasy land of make-believe -- the place where the Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway this Saturday night has no guaranteed spots.

That's right. This racing wonderland is a track where you post one of the fastest 43 qualifying laps or it's off with your head -- as in pack up and head off to the next race.

Now wouldn't that be a glorious little utopia? A paradise where no one gets a free pass but everyone gets a fair shot. It's a kingdom where the same opportunity applies to royalty such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and to commoners such as Robert Richardson.

That top-35 rule, NASCAR's own little Augusta National for exclusive members, would not exist.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireJunior Nation would be irate if this man didn't make a Sprint Cup event because he failed to qualify.

"But even Tiger Woods still has to make cut at the Masters," TMS president Eddie Gossage said. "That's the whole point."

In my little racing Shangri-la, fans would head to the track for a qualifying session knowing their favorite driver had to earn a spot in the show rather than just show up.

Gossage would love to reside in that world.

"Qualifying really doesn't have tremendous meaning now, and fans know it," Gossage said. "Ending this rule certainly would help sell more tickets on Fridays for the qualifying sessions."

Unfortunately, that is not the real world, the one where 35 drivers go to each event knowing they are in the race even if they run their qualifying lap backward at 10 mph.

The top-35 rule (guaranteeing a spot to the top 35 cars in team owner points) is a protection device that ensures little danger exists except for those teams not in the top 35.

"The top-35 rule was a good move for us when we put it in place [in 2005], and it has served the sport well," said Kerry Tharp, NASCAR's senior director of communications. "A lot of it was a function of trying to help with new teams that were coming on board and also add another layer of success for teams that have been earning their way."

However, Tharp also said NASCAR officials realize that things change and that the rule could be altered in the future.

"We know it's a rule that generates a lot of debate, particularly with our fans," Tharp said. "As we do with all of our rules and regulations, we will continue to review it to make sure it's best for the sport."

The intent of the rule is clear, as Gossage points out.

"I understand NASCAR's intention to give big-name drivers and sponsors some level of protection," Gossage said. "But most fans would tell you what they prefer is open competition, the fastest 43 make the field."

I'm not so sure about that on the fans' side. The legion of Earnhardt fans might riot if their hero failed to make the show, especially the ones who paid hard-earned money to sit in the grandstands for that event.

It sounds great in theory, until it affects your driver. But sport isn't about guarantees. It's about competing.

Eliminating the top-35 rule is long overdue. The race in Martinsville showed two more reasons it needs to go:

• Tony Raines, who wasn't in a top-35 car, made the show on speed, but his car was too low in a post-qualifying inspection. His qualifying time was disallowed, and J.J. Yeley took his spot in the field.

That one-race death penalty doesn't happen if a car is in the top 35. Clint Bowyer's car was too low at Daytona and his time was disallowed, but his top-35 ranking kept his car in the race.

So one car is kicked out of the race and one car isn't for the same violation based off where each ranks in the standings.

[+] EnlargeDavid Reutimann
Bruce Chapman/US PresswireWould David Reutimann still have stayed on the track at Martinsville Speedway without a top-35 rule? Not likely.

• The top-35 rule also came into play at the end, when David Reutimann stayed on the track with a wounded machine before the car stopped running. Reutimann was doing all he could to stay in the top 35 in points, which is his job while driving the No. 10 Chevy on the weekends Danica Patrick isn't driving it. Reutimann said later that he did it for himself, not Patrick.

Reutimann unfairly became the goat of the day. His car stopped on the track, forcing a green-white-checkered finish that altered the outcome, keeping Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson (who were battling for the victory) from winning.

But the blame goes to the top-35 rule, not Reutimann. The rule was on his mind when he tried to keep the car going. He knew the team was on the bubble for a top-35 spot. As it turned out, the car is one point outside the top 35 heading to Texas.

Forcing a team to fight for 35th in points is preposterous. It's also the cause of the controversial point swaps between teams, usually in the offseason, to make sure a driver has a guaranteed spot. That was the case with Patrick this year and the deal Stewart-Haas Racing made with Tommy Baldwin's team.

This entire top-35 nonsense must end. I'm a radical on this and feel every driver should get in on speed or go home. I also know that isn't going to happen.

NASCAR isn't going to risk having Earnhardt or Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards or any other big star miss the race by wrecking in qualifying.

NASCAR also doesn't want big-money sponsors missing the race, but at least nix this top-35 rule and allow only a couple of exceptions.

For example, the top 43 on speed get in unless a driver in the top 25 isn't among them. Each driver has two provisionals (or mulligans) a year in the unlikely occurrence he or she needs help to make the field.

The chances of any of these drivers needing two freebies in one season is about as high as one of them hitting a jet dryer under caution -- sorry, Juan.

But it's time for NASCAR to evolve past this rule, which is unfair, unjustified and unneeded.

"Our sport always responds to the fans, so I hope [NASCAR] will consider it," Gossage said. "Adding some drama is a good thing."

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

ALSO SEE