The numbers don’t lie.
Listener Dave Fothergill of Burlington, Ontario, Canada has spent the last few days listening to us debate the plusses and minuses of NASCAR’s qualifying (I now call it “arranging”) system. He took that discussion to a ridiculous extreme this week; going back through the qualifying records for this season and applying a strict, “Fastest 43 Only” formula to see who would have made each race, and who wouldn't. He took out the Past Champions Provisional and the Top-35 guarantee, to deterrmine who would have been around on race day, if qualifying really required qualifying.
His numbers show that last season, the fastest 43 cars made the field in only nine races. That number does not count Daytona – which has its own qualifying system – the spring race at Dover, or Watkins Glen, where qualifying was rained out.
Among the drivers who would have failed to qualify for at least one race last season under the “Fastest 43 Only” system were Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Green, Kyle Petty, Mike Bliss, Carl Edwards, Mike Wallace, Ken Schrader, Sterling Marlin, Elliott Salder, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Casey Mears, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Scott Riggs, Kasey Kahne, Travis Kvapil and Denny Hamlin.
The lead offender last season was Mike Wallace, who used provisionals to make six different races, and actually knocked baby brother Kenny Wallace out of one of them, after Kenny qualified faster. If it was all abut speed, Carl Edwards would have missed two races, and most certainly the Chase For The Championship. Kevin Harvick would have missed three races, while Rusty Wallace and Jimmie Johnson would have failed to qualify for the Brickyard 400. Rusty would have missed the fall Talladega race (during the Chase); almost certainly dropping to ninth in the final standings ahead of only Kurt Busch, who failed to finish the season in the Roush Racing #97.
This year, the fastest 43 cars have filled the field only four times. Again, those numbers do not include Daytona, or the spring race at Bristol, where qualifying was rained out. Among the drivers who would have missed at least one race under the “Fastest 43 Only” system this season are Clint Bowyer, Dale Jr., Jeff Burton, Michael Waltrip, Greg Biffle, Sterling Marlin, Ryan Newman, Brian Vickers, Dale Jarrett, Robby Gordon, Reed Sorenson, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Jeremy Mayfield, Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek, Kyle Petty, Terry Labonte, and Tony Raines.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton each would have missed two races already, and Kevin Harvick would have missed the spring race at Talladega. Think for a moment about how the complexion of the Chase would have changed as a result.
Robby Gordon and Reed Sorenson would have missed three races apiece, while Jamie McMurray, Terry Labonte and Tony Raines would each have missed two. Is there any question that Hall of Fame Racing – with “Past Champion” Labonte setting the table for “Top 35” Raines – has gorged itself at NASCAR’s provisional trough this season?
Not in my mind.
Under the “Fastest 43 Only” formula, Chad Chaffin would have started four more races than he has under the current guidelines. Hermie Sadler and Stanton Barrett each would each have made two additional starts, and Max Papis would have made his Nextel Cup debut at Watkins Glen. Morgan Shepherd would have qualified for the spring race at Talladega, and most incredibly, Michael Waltrip would have qualified for The Brickyard 400, instead of going home.
Imagine that; a system designed to protect NASCAR’s “big names” from every possible twist of bad luck, actually sending one of them home before the race.