NASCAR vice president of operations Steve O'Donnell met with a small group of reporters on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway for a candid discussion about NASCAR policies and rules. The topics included point swaps, qualifying, the top 35 rule and rookie of the year eligibility.
Below are some of the highlights of the discussion:
O'Donnell said NASCAR is well aware of how fans feel about teams obtaining top 35 owner points in order to get a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500. But NASCAR will continue to allow the transactions because many of them are in the best interests in the sport, according to O'Donnell.
"It's a challenge explaining it," he said. "It's a difficult thing to explain to the fans. We get that. But we've got to have healthy car owners out there, and that's ultimately what we try to do – make sure the garage is as healthy as possible."
In the recent controversy over Danica Patrick's move from Stewart-Haas Racing to Tommy Baldwin Racing, fans and media were upset that NASCAR was allowing the teams to make a joke out of the top 35 system – in which teams inside the top 35 of the owner points are guaranteed a position for the next race.
The move was pitched as Patrick leaving SHR for Baldwin's team and splitting the No. 10 car with David Reutimann. But in reality, Patrick won't be driving the same equipment Reutimann will.
But O'Donnell insisted Patrick was a Tommy Baldwin Racing driver in every sense of the rule. Patrick will be required to drive chassis certified as belonging to Baldwin, and Baldwin himself will be listed as Patrick's crew chief for every race (her previously named crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, will be considered a "race strategist").
"We thought this made sense," O'Donnell said. "This is not a points swap at all; it's a driver coming over (to another team), no different than other drivers have done in the past."
But it is different. Patrick will drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013 and beyond and SHR will likely supply Baldwin with cars for Patrick to use.
The deal gained approval, O'Donnell acknowledged, partially because NASCAR factored in the health of Baldwin's small, independent team.
"If you go back in history, there have been a lot of partnerships that have been put together which allowed teams to get back on their feet a little bit, and that's part of this," he said. "I would say helping Tommy was definitely part of this. Obviously we can't show favoritism, but it's in the best interests of the sport to have an owner like Tommy Baldwin be healthy. For us, that's a good thing."
NASCAR will not consider changing its policy against selling points, O'Donnell said. To obtain another team's points, the owner on the receiving end must still take a minority interest in that team.
Qualifying and top 35 rule
NASCAR is looking at different ways to make qualifying "as exciting as possible," O'Donnell said, but that does not include heat races.
However, it could include adjustments to the top 35 rule, such as reducing the number of teams who are locked in to the field.
"As we go and talk to the owners, letting them know this is the challenge we're faced with, is there something else that would do the same thing (as the top 35) that would allow us to bring back some of the excitement in qualifying?" O'Donnell said. "We've adjusted it in Nationwide and Trucks before based on (car counts)."
But O'Donnell said NASCAR is not considering scrapping the top 35 rule altogether.
Rookie of the Year
As recently as Friday, NASCAR had been considering a change to the Rookie of the Year eligibility that would have allowed Aric Almirola to compete for the title. Ultimately, officials decided it was too late.
NASCAR has no viable rookie class in the Sprint Cup Series this season and it wants to use the award to highlight and promote young drivers.
In the future, O'Donnell said NASCAR might ease the restriction on the amount of races a driver can run before losing ROY eligibility. Currently, the limit is seven races for a driver who has declared to compete for points in a given series.
Starting in 2013, NASCAR could expand the rules to allow drivers who have run a half season – or even more – before losing their rookie status. In fact, a "rookie" could mean any driver who has not raced a full season in that series.
O'Donnell said NASCAR will have one more Saturday qualifying session than last year. The sanctioning body is looking at ways to make the weekend schedule more efficient and will tinker with different concepts in the first half of this season.
Similarly, NASCAR wants to find a way to allow young drivers to get more testing time but still maintain a testing policy that helps maintain parity among the teams.