Past champions' provisional just plain wrong

July, 24, 2009
It's time for the past champions' provisional to pass away into the sunset.

Nothing against Terry Labonte, as classy and respectful a gentleman as you could ever meet, but he doesn't deserve a guaranteed spot in the second-biggest event of the year.

Labonte has raced one time this season, competing in the season-opening Daytona 500. He will compete in his second 2009 event Sunday in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

And all he has to do is show up and say, "Hi, I'm Terry Labonte."

That's good enough to make the field for the two biggest events of the year.

Well, he does have to make a meaningless qualifying lap Saturday. Although if it rains (there's a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms), he doesn't have to do that, either.

As the most recent past Cup champion who hasn't qualified on time or points, Labonte has a free pass into the 43-car field.

Ten other drivers, some of whom attempt to qualify at every event, have to fight for seven available spots.

No free ride. They have to make the race on qualifying speed. Labonte does not.

You can't blame Labonte or the No. 08 Toyota team for his being the team's old-timer version of a hired gun. Last place at Indy in 2008 paid $139,494 to Michael Waltrip.

But a driver shouldn't have access to a big payday simply because he won a Cup title 13 years ago.

"It's a way of rewarding a champion and making sure they get in the field," said two-time Cup champion and season points leader Tony Stewart. "Terry Labonte is an important figure in NASCAR racing.

"I'm not saying that everybody else who is trying to make the race isn't, but a guy like Terry has been around a long time and is very important to us."

Stewart was in position to benefit from the rule at the start of this season when he became an owner/driver in a car that didn't have a guaranteed spot.

Stewart didn't need the free pass. Qualifying wasn't rained out, and he made it in on speed for the first five events.

But Stewart is a serious competitor racing full time. If a past champion is a full-time driver, the rule makes a little more sense than when it benefits someone who pops in for just one or two big events.

"Not sure I disagree with you totally on that," Stewart said Friday. "But it really doesn't matter to me."

The odds already are stacked against the struggling go-or-go-home drivers because of the top-35 rule, which guarantees a spot to the top 35 teams in owners' points.

Some of the drivers without a guaranteed spot also are part-time competitors -- Max Papis and Regan Smith, for example. And some are start-and-parkers (such as Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek), but at least they show up every race and take their chances.

In the case of all four drivers mentioned above, they race for teams trying to build legitimate Cup operations.

Labonte's presence means one of them could lose a spot in the field this weekend, and a huge payday, to a guy who has showed up twice and no longer has any interest in racing as a serious competitor.

Again, I don't blame Labonte or the team. That's the rule, so you take advantage of it.

But the rule needs to go away.

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer



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