|Photo: Tommy Baldwin Racing Facebook|
Yes, do the math. Sixty-one > forty-three. Eighteen cars went home that day.
Now, looking at other years around that time, this was still a rather large number, even for the biggest race of the year. But next week at Fontana, fifty-one cars showed up with the intention of racing on Sunday. A sizable amount (eight) still failed to qualify. On any given weekend, there were always multiple cars that would fail to qualify and end up going home before the featured event.
Ten years later, as I sit here write this blog post, forty-two cars, one fewer than would have made a full field back then, have just finished qualifying for the 2017 Daytona 500. Today, only forty cars make the field, so two drivers will unfortunately have to watch the race from their motorhomes.
Obviously, two is not nearly as many as eighteen.
There are many possible explanations for why the entry list is only two-thirds the size it was a decade ago. Yes, the economy is not great, and yes, that has caused several teams to downsize and even close entirely.
But NASCAR also has a new system in place: the charter system. Thirty-six teams are awarded charters by NASCAR at the beginning of every season. The process is too complicated for me to have any desire to explain it here, but the bottom line is this: if a team has a charter, they are guaranteed a spot in each race that season.
That leaves only four open spots for non-chartered teams to fill.
Not only that, but teams with possession of a charter also earn more money and added benefits than teams without one. At the end of the day, if a team has no charter, they are going to have a hard time surviving in the sport.
I understand NASCAR's thinking here. Chartered teams receive added benefits and thus are more likely to be able to sustain themselves for years to come. It thus becomes easier for chartered teams to stay in business.
But thinking like that, in my opinion, is counterintuitive.
The flip side of the charter system means that it becomes much harder for "open" non-chartered teams to stay in business. Without major sponsorship and the other benefits a charter itself brings to a team, it becomes virtually impossible to operate without losing an excessive amount of money. Since Daytona is the biggest race of the season, it's highly probable we'll see a few short fields of less than forty cars this season.
The start-and-parks are non-existent in the Cup Series nowadays. Virtually all of the smaller, unsponsored, part-time teams have had to merge or close their doors in the past few years. And as ESPN's Ryan McGee argued when this system was launched, "I worry that they're making the Charter Club a little too exclusive."
It appears McGee may be right, because there are only forty-two cars at the track at Daytona this February.
Frankly, that's a crime.