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NASCAR: Format tougher for small teams

By Mike Harris
Associated PressDAYTONA BEACH, Fla. ó Don’t ask Tony Stewart how he qualified for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“I’m not sure I fully understand exactly how we ended up where we did,” the two-time champion said Thursday after finishing second to Jeff Gordon in the first of two 150-mile qualifying races.
Join the crowd.
It practically takes an advanced degree in logistics to figure out NASCAR’s mystifying system used to fill the 43-car field for the sport’s biggest race.
The bottom line is only four positions ó two from each race ó were up for grabs among 17 drivers who began the day without a guaranteed spot in the 500. The lucky ones were Stewart, Scott Riggs, Jeremy Mayfield and A.J. Allmendinger.
“We had nothing to lose,” said Allmendinger, who drives for Richard Petty Motorsports and finished just behind Mayfield in ninth place in his race. “When you’re out of the show, you’ve pretty much got two options: make it or bring it back on a wrecker. That’s what I was doing.”
Before NASCAR guaranteed the top 35 in car owner points a spot in the Cup races, the Daytona 500 qualifying races were wild, go-for-broke events that determined 28 positions.
Not now.
“The only things that are important now are staying out of trouble and finish high enough to get a decent pit selection,” said Jeff Burton, already guaranteed a spot.
NASCAR invented the top 35 rule to assure teams running the entire season, and their sponsors, that they would be in the races. It’s been controversial, with teams and some fans complaining it hurts competition and makes qualifying an unnecessary sham.
Thursday, that meant a lot of unhappy drivers and teams were loading up their cars and heading for home instead of preparing for another race and a much-needed pay day.
Had Joe Nemechek, who started his own team on a shoestring budget after losing his ride at the end of 2008, made the field he would have taken home a minimum of $250,000.
Nemechek came to Daytona knowing he was a long shot. Desperate to make a field of 43, he finished No. 44.
Three weeks ago, Nemechek wasn’t sure he would even make it to Daytona. He worked day and night putting together the team, acquiring cars, engines and equipment.
“On one hand, I am very proud of this team for how far we have come in a short time,” Nemechek said. “But when you come as close as we did, you feel a little letdown.”
In time trials, Nemechek finished fifth fastest among the non-qualified drivers and was 11th in the first qualifier, three positions behind Riggs to transfer into the 500.
“I had a perfect run going (on) the last lap,” Nemechek said. “I thought everything was sitting pretty, and the (No.) 26 car (of Jamie McMurray) slid up the track in front of me there coming off turn two on the white flag lap and killed all my momentum.”
Still, he wasn’t out of it.
Nemechek would have made the 500 if Travis Kvapil or Regan Smith, both already in on speed, got one of the transfer spots in the second race.
No such luck.

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