Ray Dunlap over at Speed bemoans the 2-year trend of new teams buying little more than the number of a team guaranteed to start the first few races of the new season. For those not familiar with the situation, last year, NASCAR radically changed how the field is set for its races, going from mainly the fastest cars (in Nextel Cup, it was the fastest 38 in qualifying, plus 4 “general” provisionals using arcane and nearly-incomprehensible rules I won’t go into (if you’re interested, Jayski has the 2004 provisional rules) and a “champ’s” provisional that almost always went unused and turned into a 5th provisional), to mainly the cars that run modestly-well week in and week out (in Cup, the top 35 in owners’ points plus the 7 fastest “field-fillers” in the first 42 spots, plus either the most-recent champ or the 8th-fastest “field-filler”). The other two national series, Busch and Craftsman Truck, have similar rules (top 30 among the every-week teams, next-fastest 12 plus the most-recent champ/13th-fastest “field-filler” in Busch, top 30 among the every-week teams, next-fastest 5 plus the most-recent champ/6th-fastest “field-filler” in CTS).
So far, so good. The trick, however, is what happens at the beginning of the season. You just don’t have enough points (or any points before the Daytona 500) to do this properly, so NASCAR uses the previous season’s owners’ points for the first 5 races (4 races in CTS). While the old provisional system also penalized new teams (they didn’t get provisionals until after the 4th race they attempted), it didn’t put them in so deep a hole that almost nobody dug themselves out because slow-qualifying teams only got so many provisionals to use. That nearly-insurmoutable hole was the effect of the new rules. Taking a look at the Cup standings, there was only one team (the Gibbs Racing #11) that was outside the top 35 at the end of 2004 that wound up in the top 35 at the end of 2005, and only one team that was outside the top 35 after the 5th race and the switchover to the 2005 owners’ points (the Wood Brothers #21; the #11 was in the top 35 after the 5th race) that raced their way back into the top 35 by the end of the year.
So, what’s a new team to do? The smart ones buy a team that went out of business the previous year. The really-smart ones (like the aforementioned #11 when it slipped back under the top 35 mid-season and the Hall-of-Fame Racing #96 this year) go and hire a past champ for a few races (in both cases, Terry Labonte, 1996 Winston Cup champ). Dunlap outlines and bemoans several examples, from the more-or-less benign (like Ray Evernham actually buying a bunch of assets along with the 12th-place 2005 CTS finish from the folded James Smith Ultra #2 team), to the completely outrageous (Mighty Motorsports buying nothing more than the 8th-place 2004 CTS finish from the defunct BANG Racing and stinking up the joint), to the item that really set him off, Michael Waltrip Racing becoming Doug Bawel’s partner in the newly-formed Michael Waltrip-Jasper team (running the #55 “Dodge” provided by Bill Davis this year, and Toyotas starting next year) after Roger Penske pulled the plug on the Penske-Jasper #77 Cup team. I won’t defend the Mighty Motorsports deal, but I’ll defend the other 3 (including the MWR-FitzBradshaw Busch deal).
In the Evernham/Ultra deal, Evernham did buy a heap of assets from Smith to go along with the points. Further, Evernham has demonstrated a measure of success in the other two national series, and the driver he’s putting in the ride (Erin Crocker) has already shown some promise in the Busch Series.
Michael Waltrip’s Busch deal was more of him providing a driver (himself) and a sponsor (Aaron’s) to an existing team that would otherwise had been shuttered (the FitzBradshaw #40). In fact, MWR’s Busch operations moved into the FitzBradshaw building. Even though MWR had a big problem with qualifying in the latter part of 2005, I can’t knock a team that actually moves into the “old” team’s shop and uses their equipment.
The Cup deal is a special case. Waltrip was originally signed to run a second car for Bill Davis Racing, only that second car (#23) was nowhere near 35th place. Meanwhile, Roger Penske folded the 34th-place #77 Penske-Jasper team he jointly owned with Doug Bawel since 2004 (before then, the team was Bawel’s and known as Jasper Racing). I guess Bawel didn’t take things lying down, and entered into a 3-way deal with Waltrip and Davis. The team is a joint venture between Waltrip (which already had a part-time Cup operation) and Bawel (who will handle business management and relations with NASCAR), with Bill Davis providing the “Dodges” this year and Toyotas starting next year (no factory support from Dodge because Davis was instrumental in bringing Toyota into CTS; that one’s in the courts).
To be fair to Dunlap’s point, I’ll toss out another outrageous example from the 2005 CTS season he didn’t bring up; the Bobby Hamilton Racing deal. Bobby Hamilton Sr. was the CTS champ in 2004 driving the #4 BHR truck (which also finished 1st in the owners’ points). Hamilton wanted to expand the operation to 3 full-time teams, but only 2 of them would have been eligible for the guaranteed spot. He put himself in the #04 team (which had 1 start in 2004), knowing that he would start every race no matter what because, as defending CTS champ, he would always be first in line for the champion’s provisional. Then, he put a rotating series of drivers in his old #4 ride (guaranteed to start the first 4 races because it finished in the top 30 in owners’ points and attempted every race in 2004). That worked out pretty well, even though he had to take the champ’s provisional once (officially, 2 times, but one of those was in a race with only 36 entries); his new truck finished 7th and his old truck finished 24th in the 2005 owners’ points.
One last thought; because of the major abuse of the past-champ’s provisional in the Busch Series by 1993 champ Steve Grissom (who used the provisional 16 times, sending a faster car home more than half the time according to Dunlap), and because of a large number of ex-Busch-champ “Buschwhackers” (Cup drivers who use a companion Busch series race for additional seat time on the track; a side result of the abortive “impound” setup and likely to continue with rigidly-scheduled testing), BGNRacing.com has a hot rumor that the past champ’s provisional in the Busch Series will only be available once every 8 races.