For 13 years, every race at the highest division of NASCAR has featured the maximum of 43 starters. It's a streak that ends this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.
Only 42 drivers will take the green flag in Saturday's Quaker State 400, the first race with less than a full field since Nov. 23, 2001 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway -- an event delayed from its original September date because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The decrease in the number of racers on Saturday night is not much of a surprise.
With many teams big and small struggling to secure sponsorship in the past few years, the number of entrants has gradually decreased. Twenty-two of 36 races in 2013 featured 43 entries, as did four of 16 races this season.
The soaring costs of operating a team combined with sagging attendance were factors Jeff Gordon readily acknowledged.
"There is no doubt that times have changed with how much the cost has gone up," Gordon said. "We are searching hard to find the income to match what the cost is. That is about the only thing that anybody should make of anything that is going on out there. Whether there are 35 cars or 45 cars to me that doesn't really make a big difference."
Defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson doesn't like seeing a less-than-full field, but dismisses that NASCAR has an image problem. He cited the fact that even 42 starters is still almost double the average grid size for an IndyCar race and most other prominent motorsports series, including Formula One.
"I hate to see it, obviously," Johnson said. "There's that prestige of having 43 since way back. But I don't think it has any bearing on the strength of our sport. When I look at all the markers our sponsors look at and why they're partners on our race car, things are going in the right direction.
"The fact of the matter is this is the top form of racing, in my mind, in the world. And it's not cheap. I understand why there could be a short field, but there's no concern on my behalf."
Many drivers shared an opinion similar to Johnson's, citing the competitiveness and depth of the field, including Clint Bowyer. He points to the decreasing number of teams that show up, but head to the garage after just a few laps. No team has start-and-parked since April 12 at Darlington Raceway.
"For me, it's more important to have quality cars on the race track week in and week out than a number," Bowyer said. "I don't think any set number has anything to do with the product of our racing and this sport of NASCAR. It has to do with the product and being able to put a consistent race-winning competition on that race track for our fans. I think that's what's going to make a good race. It's not any kind of number that you can ever come up with."