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WAID’S WORLD: Short Field Brings Consequences At Daytona – Not Good

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As much anticipation and excitement as the Daytona 500, the opening event of each NASCAR season, can generate, it hasn’t created as much this year – at least to date.

Something is missing.

Many fans that come to Daytona will tell you that one of the highlights of Speedweeks are the twin 150-mile qualifying races, scheduled for Feb. 15.

They are short and fast. But more important, they are riddled with drama because the results will determine the Daytona 500 starting lineup other than the front row.

Among other things, there are drivers in these races who know the only hope they have of getting a starting spot in the 500 is to race their way in. They are nervous and willing to take chances.

Some of these drivers have spent money they don’t have. They are desperate.

If one of them makes it, chances are he also makes headlines. For example, when journeyman driver Delma Cowart finally made the 500 years ago, his name and photo were on TV and in many newspapers.

Cowart, a piano-playing character blessed with a sense of humor, was a media delight. He was especially effusive after his qualifier.

He said these memorable words: “I may have never won a race, but I’ve never lost a party.” And he didn’t lose one the night he made the race.

There are no more Delma Cowarts in NASCAR.

And there may not ever be.

There won’t be any such news or drama in the qualifiers this year. Additionally, fans have no sense of anticipation – and many have said they might not even watch them.

That’s because only 40 cars have entered the Daytona 500. Every one of them has already qualified for the race that usually has a field of 43.

Consequently the qualifiers mean nothing. A driver doesn’t have to worry about racing his way in.

And, perhaps, all the teams in the races may not make much of an effort to be competitive. Since they have already qualified why bother to risk equipment or an incident which might mandate the use of a backup car  – and, at the same time, increase expenses?

Speaking of expenses, I believe that they are exactly the reason the Daytona 500 has only 40 cars.

The “independent” teams, those with little or no sponsorship (Cowart), that raced where they could with tight budgets, no longer exist. They haven’t for some time.

So, obviously, they are not at Daytona to gamble on qualifying and the potential reward of a good payday.

They have essentially been legislated out of business. In recent years NASCAR has created the “charter” system, which, in essence, guarantees all participating teams entry into every race.

This system is designed to protect sponsors. Sponsorship is the lifeblood of every team. Unlike the more economically sound times of the past it has been increasingly hard to find. And the amounts received have been less.

A sponsor has reason to believe its investment in a team may not be a good one if the car carrying its colors fails to make a race.

Knowing this is the principal reason NASCAR created the “charter” system.

It follows that NASCAR will tell you a short field for the Daytona 500 isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Its reasoning is, “It is never a good thing for a sponsor not to make a race.”

That may be and NASCAR has taken action to assure it does not happen.

But for every action there is a reaction.

And the reaction to a 40-car field for the Daytona 500 and the loss of meaning and drama for the qualifiers has been negative – even hostile – from many fans.

One even declared, via social media, that “NASCAR is dying on the vine.”

Maybe not, but given loss of some of the allure that comes with each Daytona 500, it doesn’t appear to be a far-flung conclusion.



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Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.