Importance of pole sitters falls by NASCAR's wayside
At its core, racing's defining characteristic is speed. The winner is the driver who completes the distance in the fastest amount of time, armed with numbers that obliterate the 65 mph "guideline" that limits us on most highways in America. Obsession with seeing people push those boundaries, whether over one mile or 500, is why fans all over the country pack the stands.
Back in the day, NASCAR understood that curiosity, creating an exhibition race surrounding what's become the series' forgotten man: its top qualifier. Once known as the Busch Clash, a 50-mile sprint duel at Daytona was the perfect fit for those who dared to risk it, packing all their speed into a single lap to set both a record and the stage for Sunday's big show.
Now? That race is a distant memory, trampled under the confusing calculus book of rules otherwise known as the Bud Shootout. Up to 70 laps in duration, the shootout got virtually dismantled after 2008, once Coors took over the pole award sponsorship, while Budweiser wanted to remain in support of the race itself. Seems like the logic here is simple, right? Why not just give Bud the "Real Men Of Genius For NASCAR" Award or some other made-up marketing tool this sport is good at, and let the race become the Coors shootout and be done with it?
That didn't happen. Instead, a convoluted series of rules, changed three times the last three years, have made the February heart-stopper a concept most fans can't even grasp. (Deep breath) Let's try to explain. At first, the race was changed to pump up manufacturers, as the top six cars in owner points from the previous year granted admission for Ford, Toyota, Chevy and Dodge. That didn't work so well, so the focus was turned to champions, Daytona winners and rookies, according to the new eligibility rules below:
* The 12 drivers who qualified for the 2010 Chase
* Past Sprint Cup champions
* Past Budweiser Shootout champions
* Past Daytona points race winners
* Sprint Cup rookie of the year drivers from 2001-2010
Hmm. OK... so that means men like John Andretti (1997 Pepsi 400 winner) and Derrike Cope (1990 Daytona 500 winner) are currently capable of driving next to Jimmie Johnson. And the 12 Chase guys, who were hammered into everyone's heads for three months to end the season, start off in a 70-lap, mano-e-mano competition to see who's the best driver to begin 2011? I guess, but not exactly, since there are other drivers around to crash the party. And let's not forget random rookies of the year scattered throughout the field, including Kevin Conway, who had exactly one top-15 finish in 2010...
If you're not scratching your head at this point, you've got amazing restraint. It makes sense ... how? And through it all, we're ignoring what's become a more important statistic in NASCAR as of late. Quick, tell me who won the most poles in 2010. Waiting ... Waiting ... The answer is a tie. Jamie McMurray had four (another highlight of his three-win dream season), as did the much-maligned Kasey Kahne. Among those finishing with three was Carl Edwards, who used the last of his poles to dominate a November race at Phoenix and springboard his way back into the national consciousness.
Edwards was one of five drivers to hold onto first place at both the drop of the green and the checkered, joining Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin in 2010. In fact, during this supposed age of parity, starting up front is more important than ever: A whopping 21 races have been won from the "pole" (remember, some point leaders inherit the top spot when qualifying gets rained out) since the start of 2008, the most in a three-year span since Bill Elliott and Darrell Waltrip were dominating the tour from 1984 to '86. Going deeper, in the past year alone, 24 races were won from a qualifying position inside the top 10 and 32 of 36 -- that's 89 percent -- from inside the top 20, some of the highest numbers we've seen in recent history (see chart).
With that in mind, you'd think greater focus would land on the whole qualifying process. Kevin Harvick will tell you it killed his title chances -- he started inside the top 20 just once during the Chase -- while Kahne and others, it was the lone bright spot of a tumultuous year. Yet we don't even have a race putting the spotlight on these people in a way fans can comprehend, showcasing a different side of the sport's top drivers.
A 2011 Bud Shootout with pole sitters only would provide the perfect mix: seven Chasers, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kahne in his new ride, the always-unpredictable Juan Pablo Montoya, and potential stars in Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger, etc. If you wanted a sprinkle of gray hair, well, include one small wrinkle, past Shootout winners, so maybe a Ken Schrader or Terry Labonte could sneak in somewhere.
Seems like a simple concept, an easy way to get fans on board and riled up over a race that should serve to pump up a sport's Super Bowl the following week. Instead, what we're left with in its place is a confusing mix of gobbledygook where by the time you figure out exactly why certain people are in the race, it's half over. And in a sport that prides itself on having its cars go fast around the race track, shouldn't speed in competition be a top priority?