Posted By Pete Pistone
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - You need a slide rule and a calculator to figure out who makes the Daytona 500 these days.
What used to be a relatively simple formula has ben convoluted by the Top 35 rule and NASCAR's new math has hit its most popular driver pretty hard this "Speedweeks."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole for Sunday's 53rd running of the Daytona 500 when he topped last Sunday's qualifying session. That run as well as the second fastest speed of time trials turned in by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon locked the duo into the front row for "The Great American Race."
But not so fast.
Earnhardt crashed in Wednesday's first Sprint Cup Series practice session and was forced to pull out a back-up car for the 500. By NASCAR rules that means he'll have to start from the rear of the field.
Like everyone else who took a qualifying lap on Sunday, Earnhardt will take part in Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona twin 150 mile qualifying races. But unlike everyone else, Earnhardt's finish in his qualifying race will have no bearing on where he takes the green flag for the 500.
Basically because of the unique rules that govern the sport's biggest race, the top qualifiers are locked into the starting line-up field for better or for worse.
So no matter where Earnhardt finishes Thursday he'll be forced to start "The Great American race" from the 43rd position.
The quirk exposes just how antiquated the qualifying procedure is for the Daytona 500. The procedures are completely different than how NASCAR determines the starting line-up for the other 35 points races of the regular season, which is a bit like Major League Baseball using batting practice home runs to give a team a run in the first inning of the World Series.
Why not just use the regular qualifying plan of the fastest drivers plus the Top 35 to set the field for the most prestigious event on the calendar?
Since the Top 35 rule had all but sucked the drama out of Thursday's Gatorade Duel qualifying races the mystique of using time trials as the first wave and then the finishing positions in the twin 150s to determine the starting positions in the 500 are gone.
Basically winning the pole like Earnhardt did is detrimental since the front row qualifiers are locked into a set of rules that isn't in play for the balance of the field.
"It is what it is," said Earnhardt's crew chief Steve Letarte . "We feel good about things even though we lost our primary car in that crash. In turh starting at the back of the field in the Daytona 500 with all the drafting that goes on and the length of the race isn;t as much of a hinderance as it would be if you had to start from the back at some of the other races on the schedule."
Letarte's optimistic attitude isn't surprising but it doesn't erase the oddness that surrounds this year's Daytona 500 before the green flag has even flown on the race.
|More NASCAR coverage|