CONCORD, NC - JANUARY 23: Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, speaks with the media during the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway on January 23, 2012 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Should drivers be allowed to get into the Daytona 500 without earning their spot?
Ah, the Daytona 500 – the "Great American Race."
It's a fitting nickname, isn't it? After all, the Great American Race embodies so many of the values Americans love.
There are the underdog stories, where the little guy comes out of nowhere to stun the establishment. There are the stories of greatness, where legendary drivers write their name in the history books. And there are stories of redemption, where once-dead careers are revived.
Add hot dogs and beer and Chevrolets to those storylines, and it really is the Great American Race.
Well, except for one thing: How drivers actually get into the Daytona 500 is decidedly un-American.
NASCAR qualifying is not a merit-based system in general – typically, 35 of the 43 drivers are determined before the weekend even starts – but rules get particularly twisted at the start of the season.
Under NASCAR rules, owner points can be bought and sold as long as the seller gets a minority interest in the buyer's team.
This "merger" is virtually in name only, however, and the entities remain otherwise separate.
This long-standing rule will reportedly be employed by Stewart-Haas Racing for the upcoming Daytona 500, thus giving Danica Patrick a pass into NASCAR's Super Bowl.
No matter how she does in Daytona 500 qualifying and the ensuing qualifying races – good or bad – the GoDaddy Girl will make her first-ever Sprint Cup Series start on the sport's biggest stage.
The proposed deal, first reported by Sirius-Speedway.com, is complicated. But the gist of it is this: Patrick would get Dave Blaney's owner points from Tommy Baldwin Racing and therefore gain a locked-in position to the Daytona 500.
TBR, a small independent team, would likely get a nice financial boost plus other support from Stewart-Haas. TBR driver David Reutimann would even run a No. 10 car – like Patrick's, except with the lesser TBR equipment – for the majority of the season in order to keep the car in the top 35.
That way, Patrick could potentially be locked in for all 10 of the Sprint Cup races she plans to attempt this season.
That's wrong. No amount of money could buy a spot on a Super Bowl team this weekend; nor could being rich and famous allow you to make a Major League Baseball roster (right, Garth Brooks?).
The ability to purchase a starting spot from another team devalues the competition on the track. If you thought NASCAR's practice of secretly fining drivers for their comments was a no-brainer candidate for change, this is even more glaring.
But the blame here cannot be placed on Patrick or Stewart-Haas Racing. They're just playing the system like anyone would if presented with the opportunity.
I'd do it if I could. So would you. And the reality is, if either of us won the lottery, there's a real chance we could find our way into the Daytona 500.
This has been done before. Steve Wallace won the genetic lottery – his dad is NASCAR legend Rusty – and had a Daytona 500 starting spot purchased for him just last year.
He did just fine, finishing 20th in his Cup debut. So just because a driver gets into the field based on a deal and not on merit doesn't mean he (or she) will have a disastrous race.
Still, it doesn't make it right. And the onus falls on NASCAR to remedy the situation.
In that case, NASCAR needs to step up and end this practice once and for all. When it comes to stock car racing, NASCAR has often made it clear that it regulates the ball, the court and the game itself.
If officials wanted to change they rules, they easily could. It's NASCAR's world, and everyone else just lives in it.
This topic comes up every year, but the hype around Patrick's Cup debut means the practice of buying points will get an extra close look this time around.
Let's hope Patrick's free pass into the Daytona 500 is the last one NASCAR ever allows.