Former champ Elliott doing famed Wood Brothers a favor

CONCORD, N.C. -- Michael "Fatback" McSwain stared into the computer in the back of the No. 21 hauler early Thursday morning as he searched for potential setups for Sunday night's Nextel Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

On any other weekend he would be working on a qualifying setup because the car is not in the top 35 in owner's points.

But because 51-year-old Bill Elliott is subbing for Kenny Schrader in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, the car is guaranteed a spot because of Elliott's past champion's provisional.

"I just appreciate sitting here today not having that knot in my throat about qualifying," said Eddie Wood, the co-owner of one of NASCAR's most famed teams.

The No. 21, driven by Jon Wood for one race, has been outside the top 35 since the second week of the season. Schrader failed to qualify it for two of the last three races, prompting Wood to call on the semi-retired Elliott for a favor.

They have a handshake agreement for this weekend, and will talk about future races after Sunday. Elliott brought his Ford Fusion in 22nd in qualifying, not even having to rely on a past champion's provisional to make the race.

"With Bill, you can use that first hour of an hour and a half of practice on race stuff," said Wood, whose car is 39th in owner's points. "Then the last 30 minutes you throw tires on it and make a stab at qualifying. If you hopefully get in, that's fine. But you're still prepared for the race."

He glanced back at McSwain looking at charts on the computer.

"They've been preparing for the 600 all week, where is if we hadn't done it that way they'd be worried about qualifying," Wood said. "It takes days to prepare, to do that simulation and all of that preparation that goes into it.

"With Bill coming on board it enables us to be like the guys in the top 35 for a period of time."

Wood would like NASCAR to make changes to the top-35 rule, which was created to help ensure teams that run every week with fulltime sponsors get into the field.

But many believe the rule needs adjusting with 49 to 50 cars arriving weekly for 43 spots.

Mike Brown, the general manager of Bill Davis Racing, spent Thursday morning searching for NASCAR officials to present an alternative plan.

Brown would like to see the top 12 cars -- the ones eligible for the championship chase -- guaranteed a spot each week with the rest qualifying on speed.

That way a car that is 21st fastest but not in the top 35 has a better chance of making the race.

"Theoretically, you could be the ninth fastest and go home," said Brown, reminding that there are only eight spots for those outside the top 35 each week.

Under Brown's formula, Michael Waltrip would have qualified for four of the first five races. Under the top-35 rule, Waltrip has missed 11 consecutive races.

"If you look at it, it's not a bad idea," Brown said.

NASCAR officials aren't looking to change the rule this season, but they do plan to review it during the offseason.

Elliott, the 1988 Cup champion and most recent past champion not in the top 35 with provisionals to use now that 1999 champ Dale Jarrett has used his six, understands the frustration. He says he would be in the same situation with the single-car team he ran for six seasons.

"I told Eddie this the other day, when I had my deal I didn't have the foresight to see where the sport is going today," said Elliott, also scheduled to run Saturday's Busch Series race for Braun Racing. "This business has just changed so much. It just seems like the guy with the most resources and money are the ones you have to beat every week.

"It wasn't like that in my era. Early on, we didn't have that much money. It was a count of what you could figure out and make work. Today, money is the world."

Many owners feel for the Wood Brothers, who have fielded some of the best teams in the sport's history with drivers such as David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker and Junior Johnson.

It's not a happy circumstance to see any proud team that has been a pillar of NASCAR like the Wood Brothers not be as competitive as they were in their heyday.

Jack Roush

"It's not a happy circumstance to see any proud team that has been a pillar of NASCAR like the Wood Brothers not be as competitive as they were in their heyday," said Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush. "Unfortunately, that's a sign of the times.

"The reasons why they fell out of the top 35 wasn't any single thing. It was some wrecks. It was some bad luck and it was the way they were running at the time."

It began at the Daytona 500, where Schrader was running 15th when Dave Blaney ran into the No. 21 coming off pit road late in the race.

"It's going to take a while to get back there," Wood said of the top 35. "You do as well as you can. But people that are in the top 35, the right ones have got to have problems. Once you get back in that mess from 32nd on back, it seems to snowball on you."

Elliott, a great qualifier in his heyday, hopes he can stop the avalanche.

"For Eddie and Len [Wood] and the guys, it ain't about money," he said. "It's just about helping those guys get back on track. If I can help them great. If I can't then I need to go do something else."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.