FENWICK: So Long Top 35 Rule


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It seems as if NASCAR has decided to go back in time.

The sanctioning body announced a series of rule changes Tuesday, which included abolishing the Top 35 rule, which was put into effect eight years ago to help guarantee teams with major corporate sponsorship positions in the starting lineup of NASCAR national events.

Instead, NASCAR is reverting back to its old format of setting starting lineups. In qualifying, the fastest 36 cars will earn starting positions, followed by the six highest cars in the owner’s standings that didn’t qualify on speed. The final position will be reserved for a past champion who hasn’t yet made the field. If there is no past champion, then the seventh highest team in owner’s points will receive the position.

The elimination of the Top 35 rule is a game changer in more ways than one. First, it brings back a sense of importance for the annual Duel races that traditionally set the starting field for the Daytona 500 at Daytona Int’l Speedway.

In recent years drivers and teams with guaranteed starting positions in the Daytona 500 spent the Duels preparing for the Daytona 500. Now they will be forced to race during the Duels because only a handful of drivers will be guaranteed starting positions based on this new (old) format.

Secondly, it makes qualifying more about speed and less about “just getting a solid lap in.” If you can’t put together a fast lap during qualifying, there is no guarantee of racing. Plain and simple. It should have been that way all along.

Can we get an Amen?

In addition to the abolishment of the Top 35 rule, NASCAR is returning to the random draw to set qualifying order. That replaces the current format, which sets qualifying order based on practice times.

This is a plus because now teams won’t sandbag in practice in an attempt to earn a good qualifying position. With a random draw, there is nothing they can do but simply go fast and turn left (or right on the road courses) and hope they are fast enough to grab a spot in the field.

Stepping down one peg, the NASCAR Nationwide Series will see a reduction in field size beginning in 2013. Instead of the standard 43-car field, Nationwide Series races will start only 40 cars.

From a competition standpoint, this is a brilliant move. The Nationwide Series has lacked competitive entries for several years now, with most cars that qualify near the rear of the field starting and parking anyway.

This will not only cut down on the start-and-park teams, but should hopefully improve the competition for the final starting positions in the field, as well as the quality of the teams on track.

Lastly, and, perhaps, most importantly, NASCAR is opening up its testing policy for 2013. While we don’t expect NASCAR to return to the “test wherever you want” policy it employed prior to 2009, the sanctioning body will allow Sprint Cup teams to test at four tracks that currently host NASCAR events.

While this could be a huge advantage to larger teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing, it could also benefit smaller teams like Wood Brothers Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing. The extra track time can only improve those programs, making them more competitive in the coming seasons.

While we can’t speak for everyone in the NASCAR world, it certainly seems to us that this is a giant step forward for a sanctioning body that desperately needed a victory.

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Adam Fenwick
Adam Fenwick is the Associate Editor of SPEEDSPORT.com and SPEED SPORT Magazine. Both a writer and photographer, you can find him at race tracks across the Southeast covering anything from asphalt late models to dirt sprint cars.