Robby Gordon raced his way into the Daytona 500 Thursday, rebounding from a tire rub at the start of his Gatorade Duel 150 qualifier to post an unlikely Top-5 finish and punch his ticket to the “Great American Race.”
Afterward, the always outspoken Gordon ignited a bit of a controversy by criticizing the rule that allowed former Sprint Cup Series champion Terry Labonte to qualify for the race, despite running just 12 laps in his Gatorade Duel before heading to the garage with what was generously termed a “vibration.”
"I think (the guaranteed starting spot) should be based on if you were with that team when you win the championship, not just because you win a championship,” said Gordon yesterday. “That takes a spot from teams that are working really hard to get in the Daytona 500. Rules are rules, and we made (the race) fair and square by being fast enough. I'm proud of my team and I'm proud to be in the Daytona 500."
|Robby Gordon speaks out...|
Labonte’s FasLane Racing, owned by former Roush Fenway Racing crew chief Frank Stoddard, races on a limited budget and came to Daytona without a backup car. A crash in yesterday’s Duel would prevent the team from competing in Sunday’s main event, so Stoddard wisely instructed his driver to make an early day of it and withdraw from the race, claiming a Past Champion’s Provisional good for the 43rd and final starting spot on Sunday.
Labonte insisted he took advantage of the rules as they exist; doing the smart thing for both himself and his team. "It's the only car we’ve got," he said. "That wreck was right in front of us, and we just couldn't take a chance on wrecking it. We practiced enough in a pack and… the car's really good.
“We just couldn't risk it."
Gordon wasn’t buying it, saying, "I've got a lot of respect for Terry. This is not a Terry Labonte thing, (but) there are only eight cars that make the Daytona 500. He takes one of those spots; now seven guys make the Daytona 500. Four make it in qualifying races, three make it on speed. It's just not right. Why take a free ride when the rest of us have to bust our butts to get into the 500?"
Gordon’s remarks touched a nerve with many fans, who feel – right or wrong – that there are too many guarantees in NASCAR these days. Counting Labonte, 36 drivers arrived in Daytona Beach last week knowing they were locked into the season’s most important event, leaving only seven spots to be filled by Saturday afternoon’s time-trial qualifying and 300 miles of heat racing yesterday. To many, qualifying for the Daytona 500 has lost its luster, reduced to little more than a week of busy work en route to a starting lineup that is pre-determined in a corporate board room, well in advance.
NASCAR is the only professional sport to reward athletes and teams for something they accomplished long ago. For all their past glory, the Green Bay Packers do not receive a guaranteed spot in the NFL playoffs. The New York Yankees own 27 World Series champions; a lofty statistic that earns them not a single advantage on Opening Day.
Perhaps it’s time for NASCAR to simply celebrate its past, rather than living in it. Eliminate the outdated Past Champion’s Provisional and begin awarding the final Daytona 500 starting spot to a team that excels today, rather than a driver who excelled a decade or more ago.
Photo Credit: Ashley Dickerson/ASP Inc/Icon SM