FENWICK: The Facts About A Short Daytona Field

The fact that only 40 cars attempted the Daytona 500 this year shows how much NASCAR has changed in the last 10 years.
Adam Fenwick

CONCORD, N.C. — Only 40 cars attempted to qualify for the 60th running of the Daytona 500 Feb. 18 at Daytona Int’l Speedway.

That’s it, 40 cars. That’s a far cry from the 53 that attempted to qualify for the 50th running of the Daytona 500 in 2008. It’s amazing how much can change in 10 years.

A lot of factors contributed to the low car count at Daytona. NASCAR’s charter system, of which this writer isn’t a big fan, is one factor. Another is the always-rising cost of competing at the upper level of NASCAR.

It’s not as easy as it used to be to put together a stock car and try to qualify for the Daytona 500. It was never easy, really, but it seemed to be a lot easier to do it 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

The way things work now for the Daytona 500, 36 drivers should have been locked in to the starting field before turning a qualifying lap. Those would have been the 36 charter teams, which all have guaranteed starting positions in every race.

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Two more drivers would have been locked into the Daytona 500 by posting the fastest qualifying laps of the “open” cars in qualifying. Open cars are teams without the benefit of a charter and are forced to qualify on time.

That would have left two open positions in the Daytona 500 to be determined during the Can-Am Duel races on Thursday before the Daytona 500. That’s what the Can-Am Duel races are all about, the drama of who is going to get in and who is going to go home disappointed because they didn’t qualify for the Daytona 500.

We didn’t have that this year. For the first time in my life, not a single team was sent home from the Daytona 500. All 40 cars that attempted to qualify made the starting field for the 60th running of NASCAR’s biggest race.

Does anybody else see a problem with this scenario?

The Daytona 500 is supposed to be the biggest race of NASCAR’s season. It’s called “The Great American Race” for a reason. It wasn’t all that long ago that folks were building cars in garages behind their homes with the dream of qualifying for the Daytona 500.

Several drivers got to live those dreams by taking underfunded cars and racing their way into the Daytona 500. Brian Kes­­el­­­ow­ski, Kirk Shelmerdine, Shawna Robinson, Billy Standridge, Delma Cowart and Jerry O’Neil are some of those drivers who made the Daytona 500 on a wing and a prayer.

With only 40 cars showing up to qualify for 40 spots in the Daytona 500, is that era officially over? It’s hard not to think so.

Perhaps it’s just us, but it feels like NASCAR continues to make it harder and harder for the little guys to show up and race. You can’t just show up at Daytona with a stock car hoping to qualify for the Daytona 500. From a financial standpoint it simply isn’t feasible anymore.

Heck, what was the point of even running the Can-Am Duel races this year? Those races, once upon a time, determined nearly the entire starting field for the Daytona 500. These days the Duel races are glorified test sessions as drivers figure out how their cars handle in the draft.

Sure, each of the Duel races pays points to the top-10 finishers now and that does make a difference, but that doesn’t make those races special. What made them special was the drama that ensued as drivers battled tooth-and-nail for every position, knowing that one spot could determine if they qualified for the Daytona 500 or not.

There was even a time where the best drivers, guys like Earnhardt, Petty, Waltrip, Wallace and Elliott, weren’t guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500. Just like the small independents, they had to race their way into the Daytona 500.

Obviously, a lot has changed since then. The charter system makes qualifying a lot less stressful for 36 drivers and teams each week, which almost makes qualifying a moot point. We even saw one respected journalist recently ask why qualifying is even run anymore. He suggested simply drawing for starting spots, lining the cars up and waving the green flag.

That would make the races a bit more interesting at the start, at least until the front-runners made it to the head of the field.

What we’re really saying here is that NASCAR isn’t what it used to be. Most who read this are already well aware of that fact, but when only 40 cars show up to qualify for what is supposed to be the biggest race of the year, it really drives the point home.

NASCAR has and will continue to change and there isn’t anything we can do about that. It’ll never be what it was in the 1980s or ’90s and we don’t have to like it. All we can do is hope that somehow the sport will reach a point where everyone is talking about how great the racing is again and not about the fact that only 40 cars showed up to qualify for the Daytona 500

We can only hope, anyway.