Teams outside top 35 facing tougher odds

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Michael Waltrip climbed out of his No. 55 Toyota on Friday night and began a long, lonely walk from pit road to the motorcoach lot at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

His head was down and his morale seemingly lower, ignoring encouraging shouts of, "Michael! Michael!" from a few fans.

Waltrip failed to qualify for his third consecutive Nextel Cup race since slipping into the opener at Daytona, where NASCAR suspended his crew chief and competition director indefinitely after a foreign substance was found in his engine.

The only good news was that two of his three cars -- the No. 00 of David Reutimann and No. 44 of Dale Jarrett -- made the field for Sunday's race.

"He's probably on suicide watch," said Tony Eury Sr., who two years ago worked with Waltrip at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "I just hate it for Michael and the NAPA people.

"I know he's spent a lot of money and has a lot of pride in what he's built. I wouldn't want to be in his position right now."

Nobody wants to experience life outside the top 35 in owner's points these days.

You're at the back of the line for inspection, which more often than not this season has resulted in missing 15 to 40 minutes of valuable practice time.

You're under pressure from sponsors and manufacturers who aren't happy when their cars don't make the show.

On rainy days like Friday, you spend as much time watching The Weather Channel as you do the speed charts, because a washed-out qualifying session could mean an automatic trip home.

And then when you don't make the field on speed, you're still going home with nothing to show for it.

As Jeff Burton noted, it's not like golf where one-third to half of the field is sent home after the first two days.

"That's a bad thing for the ones that didn't make it, but they don't have 400 employees," Burton said before qualifying 32nd. "They don't have the capital expenses that are incurred by a Cup team.

"If you're in the top 35, everything is great. If you're not, everything is not. I don't know the answer other than to have [just] 43 teams, but how you pick those 43 teams is beyond me, so it's very complicated. But there is long-term potential trouble in having sponsors that aren't in the show."

Toyota has been hit the hardest.

Waltrip has made one of four races and Reutimann has made two of four, qualifying 24th on Friday. Dale Jarrett has made all four races, but only because he used four of his six available past champion's provisionals.

Team Red Bull has put only two cars -- Brian Vickers started 15th at California and qualified 31st at Atlanta -- in the first four races between Vickers and A.J. Allmendinger.

Bill Davis Racing's Dave Blaney was guaranteed a spot in the first five races because he finished in the top 35 last season. But with three consecutive DNFs, he's in danger of having to qualify on speed after next week's race at Bristol.

Teammate Jeremy Mayfield has yet to make the field.

With 48 to 53 cars showing up for 43 spots every week, the trend is likely to continue.

NASCAR president Mike Helton said that ultimately could lead to a change in the rule that guarantees the top 35 a spot each week.

"Maybe not today, but we'll keep an eye on it," he said.

Teams that don't make the field aren't likely to catch up because they go home without much of the data from practice and competition it takes to improve.

"If you're behind the ball from the time you get here, it just snowballs all weekend long," said Eury Sr., the crew chief for Paul Menard. "It don't get any better."

The inspection process has hampered non-top 35 cars the past few weeks. Many teams missed as much as 40 minutes in the second race at California and 10 to 20 minutes last week at Las Vegas.

"It's tough," said Doug Richert, Vickers' crew chief. "NASCAR is looking at it. ... In 30 minutes, if you play your cards right, you could make two or three [practice] runs. So you're missing two to three runs that might give you that extra comfort level."

Inspection wasn't a problem at Atlanta, where the process was completed thirty minutes early. But NASCAR is looking for ways to make the system fair for everybody.

Because of expected difficulties with next week's initial Car of Tomorrow test at Bristol, inspection will begin Thursday instead of Friday.

"You'll see the processes getting better," Helton said. "California was the first time we were at a non-superpeedway event. Vegas was the second time. It moved a little quicker. I suspect it will move a little quicker [as we move forward]. That's just normal.

"What's not normal is having 52 or 53 cars in the second race or third race or the fourth race. We can look at ways of being more efficient, but we're not going to give up effectiveness to be more efficient."

But the best way to ensure there are no problems is to be in the top 35.

"Honestly, I don't think about it because we're one that's always been in the top 35 and we don't have to worry about that side of it," said Tony Stewart, who will start 13th.

"The first year I was here it was the first four races we had to make it on time. That's about the closest thing I can think of to understand what those guys are going through, but it was tough."

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