Bubble drama for Daytona 500 not the same, and that's a shame

Kyle Busch watches the leaderboard during qualifying for the 2018 Daytona 500 on Sunday. John Raoux/AP Photo

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Brendan Gaughan should have climbed out of his car and pumped his fist in the air after his qualifying lap Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

He smiled, for sure, as the fastest of the "open" cars, achieving one of the team's goals for the Daytona 500 week.

But beyond any sort of pride, Gaughan's qualifying run didn't mean much because only 40 cars have entered for the Daytona 500.

That's 40 cars entered for 40 spots. The drama of drivers vying for the open spots in the field has disappeared for the first time in nearly 50 years.

"We were planning on coming as the fastest open car again," Gaughan said. "We did it in all four [superspeedway] races last year. ... To us, I've been telling them all offseason, I didn't care if 45 showed up, we would have been the fastest open car."

Gaughan might not care from a competition standpoint, but it's easy to feel jaded or even cheated from a fan standpoint. It just feels wrong. It might make sense in the brain, but it leaves the gut feeling sour.

The way the rules work, two drivers should have celebrated Sunday by qualifying their way into the Daytona 500 as the fastest open cars. Then on Thursday, two more would have raced their way in through the Daytona 500 qualifying races, known as either "the duels" or "the twins," depending on what they were called as you were growing up.

For the biggest race of the year, for an event where NASCAR has qualifying races, somebody should enjoy the exhilarating thrill of making the Daytona 500 and somebody else should suffer the disappointment of going home. In a sport where the stars are retiring, TV ratings are declining and attendance hasn't found an uptick in 10 years, this is just another swift kick in the pants, a sign that this sport ain't what it used to be.

Just three years ago, 52 cars showed up at Daytona for 43 spots. And now, just for the sake of the NASCAR business model, are fans supposed to accept the fact that entries have dropped 23 percent and the qualifying races won't have at least a dozen drivers waking up not knowing whether they will make it into the sport's biggest race?

Maybe those who feel this is wrong just romanticize the underdog story of getting into the Daytona 500. But that story is part of the foundation of NASCAR, from the moonshiners who sought to create the fastest thing on four wheels.

It's hard -- really hard -- to let that go and see the duels turned into just a glorified practice session. When NASCAR didn't have guaranteed positions, even those in the top 10 in points weren't necessarily guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500.

Roger Penske, one of the sport's great businessmen, tried to make a convincing argument that, for the sake of the health of the sport, 40 entries for 40 spots is natural progression.

"I don't think you'd have three or four cars more even if you didn't have all the cars guaranteed to get in, because [of] the cost today to enter the sport and maintain the sport," Penske said. "What we need is the continuity with all the same drivers and cars running across the whole season.

"We've even seen that at [the] Indy [500], obviously, with 33 or 34 cars. I think this is really a stage of the times, and that's the way it's going to be."

Bringing an open car likely would earn a team somewhere between $140,000 and $165,000 for last place, according to a garage source. To cover those costs with a significant engine deal and pay a driver and crew would be tough without sponsorship.

"I just think it's a changing of the times, and people just don't come down here with a car and figure they're going to get in the race," Penske said. "Certainly, from our perspective when we're committed for the full season with a sponsor, the last thing we want to do is not be able to race in the Daytona 500.

"I think that's a negative as far as commercially if we're trying to manage our own program."

Penske, of course, is right. The big teams wouldn't want a little team coming to take its money and risk its sponsorship. And teams that participate all year should have advantages.

"It's one of the best fields we've had," NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell said. "It's deep. In the future, would we like to see more? We probably would. But I think when you look across all of sports now, the idea of sending someone home with a major sponsor just doesn't happen in sports today, and it's not just a reality for NASCAR, it's really all motorsports and sports in general.

"So I'd tend to concentrate more on the field that we have, the quality of field that we have, and the incredible drivers and storylines."

It's hard to be excited. The exhibition race Sunday was a follow-the-leader race until near the end, as drivers had little confidence in their cars. The same will probably happen Thursday as drivers race conservatively with pretty much nothing to drive for except learning enough about their cars that they can last long enough Sunday before truly having to take a chance. Hopefully, the fact that the top 10 earn regular-season points will encourage drivers to make moves.

A meager crowd for the exhibition Clash and qualifying can't be traced to the 40-car entry list. But it added to the sense that the sport really needs a great day Sunday, when having 40 cars entered for 40 spots finally won't mean jack.

The potential is there for an incredible Daytona 500 with Alex Bowman on the pole, a bunch of hungry young drivers, several veterans still looking for their first Daytona 500 victory and Danica Patrick's last NASCAR race.

Frankly, it's just as easy to get excited about the Daytona 500 this year as it is to be frustrated in viewing the buildup last Sunday and this Thursday as mostly a forgettable exercise setting the table. Or maybe the table is just made out of wood with different roots than what so many are used to.

Here's hoping the old table comes back in 2019. Antiques sometimes are necessary to give the room some charm.