Qualifying Aftermath: Time To Abolish Top 35 Rule

As it turns out, it wasn't "too much change" that left such a bad taste in the mouths of NASCAR fans. It was too much of the wrong change.

Lately, NASCAR has made all of the right changes, and you don't hear many people complaining about that.

Double-file restarts. Multiple green-white-checkered finishes. The "Have at it, boys" policy. A return to the spoiler. All those have major positives in the eyes of most fans.

But it's long past time to make an obvious change: Get rid of the top 35 rule.

For those who hear about it all the time but may not know the specifics, NASCAR guarantees the top 35 cars in owner points will be in the race each week, regardless of how slow they are or whether they even attempt to qualify at all.

That means almost every week, the fastest 43 cars don't race (it happened only seven times in the 30 events which held qualifying sessions last season). Fields typically consist of something like the fastest 40 or 41 cars, plus a few guys who got freebies thanks to the top 35.

Of all the complaints/suggestions/criticisms fans have about NASCAR – and as we know, race fans can be a bit opinionated – the top 35 rule is one of the most common.

It's the ugly side of NASCAR – the behind-the-scenes side where confusing deals take place. The top 35 rule is one of the most uncompetitive rules in all of sports, because it's not about performance. And that's no more true than in the first five races of the season.

For example: What if I told you there was a car that was last in its Daytona qualifying race, didn't attempt a qualifying lap in Fontana, was second-slowest in Las Vegas and slowest in Atlanta?

It would seem obvious to most people that the aforementioned car didn't deserve to be in the races. Yet that car –which was the pathetically slow No. 26 of Boris Said (a whopping 10 mph slower than the pole-sitter at Atlanta) – actually "qualified" for all those events.

How? Because the team was able to acquire last season's owner points from the now-defunct Jamie McMurray car at Roush Fenway Racing just prior to Speedweeks. The team bought its way into the first five races (which are guaranteed) and beyond, thanks to the tremendous advantage locked-in cars have over the ones that are not.

Meanwhile, there was another car that was 16th out of 27 cars in its Daytona qualifier, was faster than seven cars in qualifying at California, faster than six cars in Las Vegas and five in Atlanta – yet failed to qualify for all those races.

That car was the No. 90 of Casey Mears. Despite being a brand-new team, the No. 90 out-performed several others in the top 35 during qualifying each week, yet wasn't allowed to race with them.

How does that have anything to do with competition in any way?

It doesn't. But NASCAR doesn't pretend that the top 35 rule benefits the competition.

NASCAR's qualifying rules (and remember, there were provisionals before the top 35 was put into place) are designed to protect the sponsors. After all, a sponsor wouldn't be happy if it spent a bunch of money to put its name on a race car and failed to make the race.

So NASCAR guarantees that the car will make the show, which perhaps increases the value for sponsor and, therefore, the race teams.

As for the fans? NASCAR believes the top 35 is a fan-friendly rule. A fan can buy tickets for a race this summer knowing Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be in the event (barring some sort of unforeseen circumstances), and NASCAR would rather have that than see what would happen if a big-name driver missed the race.

While sponsors and fans who like their individual drivers more than the sport itself may appreciate that, the rule still has absolutely nothing to do with performance. It's the opposite of what competition is all about.

Next week, Tiger Woods won't be able to show up at the Masters and be guaranteed at making the cut just because he's Tiger Woods. If a fan goes to the Masters on Sunday and Tiger isn't there, it may be disappointing, but that's sports.

By their very nature, sports rely on competition to decide the outcome of events – not offseason deals where positions can be purchased.

Fans of the NHRA know that drag racing does qualifying the right way. There are 16 spots in the field for the races each Sunday, and none of the spots are guaranteed.

Not even for 14-time champion John Force. Despite being the biggest name in the sport, Force has failed to qualify for races several times in the past few seasons, but the show still goes on.

Fans still watch the race. Sponsors still sponsor his car. And Force returns the next week to try and be faster.

That's how sports should be – nothing is (or should be) guaranteed. Even if you're Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson or Earnhardt Jr.

One of the major arguments against letting the fastest 43 cars race is that some of the lesser teams would show up with cars geared toward qualifying alone and possibly knock out a "better" car.

My opinion: If you get out-qualified by Scrub McBackmarker, you probably don't deserve to be in the race anyway.

Want to make the sport even more exciting, unpredictable and appealing to the fans? Make the top 35 rule go home.

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