Qualifying, sponsor woes could mean financial trouble

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- In the midst of all the Car of Tomorrow hoopla, another major issue is going down this weekend.

NASCAR has too much of a good thing. Big-money sponsors want in, but some of them can't find a spot.

More than any other sports league, NASCAR is dependent on corporate sponsorship. Teams can't race without the millions of dollars companies spend to place their logos on cars.

But cars with major financial backing are going home without racing, failing to make the show in NASCAR's qualifying system. And some companies that want to put their names on cars are being told no because of exclusivity rights of other sponsors.

Keeping everybody happy in the money train is NASCAR's big problem.

While the IndyCar Series and Champ Car World Series struggle to put 20 cars on the starting grid, NASCAR usually has 50 or more cars each week trying to make the 43-car field.

It's a big change from a few years ago when NASCAR had field fillers, cars and drivers that showed up to get a Cup event to 43.

Even when more than 43 cars tried to qualify, it wasn't a big problem. Most of the teams on the low end of the food chain, the ones that didn't make the field, didn't have major sponsors.

Occasionally, a team with big-money backing failed to get in. So NASCAR came up with the top-35 format. Teams in the top 35 in points have a guaranteed spot in the field each week.

The goal was to ensure major sponsors made every race. And it worked well until this year.

With Toyota entering Cup this year, the top-35 system is making things tough for some teams with big sponsors.

NAPA has made the show for only one race with Michael Waltrip, but that wasn't exactly a positive experience at Daytona, considering the cheating scandal that came with the No. 55 Camry.

Red Bull, which has a two-car Toyota team, hadn't gotten much for the money until Friday. Both its drivers -- rookie driver A.J. Allmendinger and Brian Vickers -- made the show. Allmendinger had been 0-for-4 before Friday.

Teams were resting on 2006 laurels for the first five Cup events this year, when a coveted top-35 spot and a guaranteed place in the race was based on last year's standings. That changes after the Food City 500 on Sunday.

The teams that have a top-35 spot after this race are the ones with a guaranteed spot at Martinsville next weekend.

It's a scary week for teams on the top-35 bubble. Teams ranking 30th through 40th have to hope they get it right on the debut of the COT. They have to earn their guaranteed spot in a car no one has ever raced.

Those teams also have to hope they keep the car in one piece at a track where the event often resembles a demolition derby.

One of them is the No. 9 Dodge of Kasey Kahne, who ranks 36th entering Sunday's race.

At least Kahne has his team director -- Kenny Francis -- back this week after a four-week suspension. Francis helped Kahne put the car on the front row for Sunday, but Francis would have preferred to return under a little less pressure.

"We're sweating it out to get back in the top 35," Francis said. "We're due a good finish."

Chairman Brian France said two weeks ago NASCAR is reviewing the top-35 format, but nothing will change for now.

Six teams went home Friday, including the Domino's Pizza Toyota of David Reutimann.

Some sponsors are fighting just to get a chance to qualify. AT&T is suing NASCAR for the right to sponsor Jeff Burton's car.

Nextel, which pays NASCAR $75 million a year as the title sponsor of the Cup series, doesn't want that to happen. Nextel officials say they have exclusive rights on telecommunications companies.

But some of those were grandfathered in when Nextel became the title sponsor, including Cingular on Burton's car. AT&T bought out Cingular and now wants its name on Burton's No. 31 Chevy.

"It's a complicated issue," Burton said Friday. "Reasonable people can have different opinions. I guess that's what we have. I think NASCAR understands that our sponsor wants to be here in the worst way. AT&T firmly believes they have every right to be in this sport."

Sunoco, the "official" fuel of NASCAR, still has problems with the Shell logo on Kevin Harvick's Chevy, even though the team made the logo smaller after his Daytona 500 victory.

Robby Gordon had to fight to get the Motorola emblem on his car last week.

NASCAR can't turn away sponsors. Exclusivity agreements in the future might need to change.

The cost of doing business in Cup continues to grow, and there are a limited number of companies that can pony up.

If some of those companies are told to go home, whether it's from failing to qualify or failing to get approval to join the club, NASCAR's problem of excess won't last long.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.