Column: Daytona 500 loses luster after NASCAR rule change

By Darshan Patel

Daily Illini, U. Illinois via UWIRE

Sports are built on the uncertain outcome.

That’s why the Jeremy Lin story happened. That’s why the Cardinals had a chance to win the World Series and did. That’s also why Trevor Bayne won last year’s Daytona 500, to become the youngest winner of the prestigious race, at just 20 years and 1 day.

While NASCAR’s status as a sport is debatable between die-hard supporters and lifelong critics, a rule implemented almost seven years ago still has me questioning, especially because it is likely to turn off people who used to enjoy the uncertainty.

On Thursday, NASCAR will host one of its many exhibition events: the Gatorade Duel. This is a pair of afternoon races for about a total of 150 miles that were once meaningful. The Duels used to establish 43-car field for the Daytona 500, which will be run for the 54th time Sunday.

Qualifying for the sport’s biggest race is not what you would find in any other race. Before the rule change in 2005, the pole positions, two front row starters, were determined by timed laps, a traditional process that many races use to determine the whole field (mainly due to time constraints). But at the Daytona 500, the rest of these positions are filled by the finishing order of these two races. Because there were two races, drivers can enter into either one. The finishing order of the first race is used to fill the inside positions after the pole and vice versa. This stretches all the way until the field is full.

As you can see, this was not only to determine the start position but also if the driver would be racing at all. The rule change, however, has given many cars a free pass to the big race, only using the Gatorade Duel for starting positions.

The rule exempts top-35 teams from last year, which is based off owner points, in addition to the two drivers who qualified for the front row from trying to qualify. However, many top teams still do run the race, as it determines the starting positions, but are much more cautious than a team that’s trying to get into the field.

Before the rule change, this was just as exciting as the Daytona 500 itself or any other big race on the NASCAR circuit, usually filled with drama for fans and top drivers alike. It was bigger than many of the NASCAR races that actually counted for points.

Just two years ago, fans were treated to probably one of the most exciting duel finishes in the history of the event. Jimmie Johnson edged Kevin Harvick in his backup car by just five thousandths of a second. In the second race, Kasey Kahne held off Tony Stewart, winning it by 14 thousandths of a second.

While some drivers believe that starting position is very important, fans know it really doesn’t matter, as positions can easily fluctuate in the race itself. With only 150 miles, or about 60 laps, any lap could have had an impact on one’s qualification status and sometimes one’s rise to fame, as it did with Bayne last year.

This race also isn’t a big time investment for fans, like most races. The Duel usually finishes in just over an hour, depending on the number of cautions. As a result, it has brought in a good 100,000 people to Daytona International Speedway — and many more viewers — even though it is scheduled for midweek matinee.

By standing by the rule, NASCAR has taken the climatic atmosphere out of the race, promising spots to drivers that fans want to see in the big race. While there is nothing wrong with that because those drivers bring in the big dollars, it just makes sense to start every season with a cleaner slate.

How about only determining the top 14 slots for the Daytona 500 in advance, based on the highly touted owner rankings, in addition to the two drivers who qualified for the pole? That would not only secure the best drivers from last season in the biggest race, but more importantly, leave 27 spots up for grabs at the Duel. The battle for these 27 spots would still include some big names, but would give a fighting chance to the less-experienced drivers, such as Bayne.

After all, we all know what could happen once one qualifies for the big race — no matter the experience.

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Copyright 2014 Daily Illini

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