NASCAR & Auto Racing

Top 35 rule controversial, but it gets the results officials want

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Little rattles the NASCAR fan base more these days than talk of the Top 35 rule.

Most fans who write on Internet message boards, send e-mails or call radio and TV shows are quick to voice their dislike of the rule and are ready to provide their solution.

The rule, established in 2005, however, is viewed as a success by NASCAR.

Simply put, the rule guarantees the top-35 teams in car owner points a spot in the 43-car field of Sprint Cup Series races. For the first five races of each season, the previous year's owner points are used.

The change has had its most visible impact for the season-opening Daytona 500. Before 2005, the field for the 500 - other than the front row, based on qualifying - wasn't known until the completion of qualifying races on the Thursday before the 500.

For most of the field, Thursday's Gatorade Duel 150-mile races simply determine starting position.

"As with any rule we put in place, you have challenges, but you look at this year and a guy like Doug Yates starting two teams. One of the reasons he can do that is because of the Top 35 rule," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's vice president of racing operations.

"It's a little more challenging for people outside the top 35, but we think for drivers and team owners that have been around the sport and made the effort year in and year out, so far it's had the effect we've wanted."

O'Donnell said the rule is evaluated each year to make sure it keeps the sport as competitive as possible. This season NASCAR decided that for every race except the 500, all teams not among the top 35 would qualify at the beginning of weekly time trials to make conditions fair.

NASCAR officials were concerned a number of full-time teams were getting knocked out of races by some running partial schedules. They wanted a system to reward those who ran every week.

In the past two years, however, the number of full-time teams in NASCAR's biggest series has increased dramatically. Locking in the top 35 is even forcing some full-time teams to miss races.

"The sponsors are hard to come by in this sport and they are hard to keep," said Cup driver Kevin Harvick, who also owns Nationwide and Trucks series teams.

The rule also has brought owners additional value. Teams are buying, selling and trading car numbers (teams) to acquire owner points that will assure them a spot in the field.

Last season, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Ginn Racing merged, which allowed DEI to give Top 35 points to its No. 15 team and field four cars each week.

When Penske Racing elected to field former Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr. full time in Cup this season, the organization switched its owner points from Kurt Busch's team to Hornish¡¦s No. 77 so Hornish would not miss the first five races.

Hornish welcomed the change.

"When you have the Super Bowl of the year as the first thing out, it really gives you a good feeling knowing that you're going to start it," he said.