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Pedley: Duels In Danger Of Becoming Dull-els

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, February 22 2012

Win or spin in Thursday's Gatorade Duels, Danica Patrick will race in Sunday's Daytona 500. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

And now, the tension of the Gatorade Duels. Except, not really. Not for fans. Not any more. Not since de facto franchising has been tossed into to the pot in Sprint Cup.

Now, the Duels are little more than practice/test sessions.

Time was, the twin qualifying races which preceded the Daytona 500 every year were a really important part of Speedweeks. They were really, really exciting.

Held the Thursday before the 500, they were a drama-o-rama. For teams, for drivers and for fans. It wasn’t like something was riding on their outcomes. It was more like everything was riding on their outcomes. Even more so, almost, than the 500 itself.

Any team – except the two which earned the front row in qualifying the Sunday before – which guessed incorrectly on setup that day; any crew member who booted a lugnut change; any driver who took a shot at threading a need whose eye looked bigger than it actually turned out to be, could spend the most important Sunday in all of stock-car racing sitting on a couch back in North Carolina.

That went for the sport’s royalty and it went for worker bees. No exceptions: Blow your duel, miss the 500. Pretty much as simple as that. Even Earnhardt and Petty and Pearson had to drive their ways in.

Of course the top teams and drivers were probably going to wake up on the morning of the 500 with spots in the starting field anyway, but in racing, the improbable can be birthed by a faulty $10 valve spring (not adjusted for inflation).

And isn’t that the way sports in general and racing specifically are supposed to be? Perform or sit.

Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers had to qualify before they could fight. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

After each of the old Duels, you had the thrill of…, and the agony off… thing working in all its emotion-wrenching pathos. In the garages and in the grandstands. Entire off-seasons were vindicated or cursed in the hours after the Duels.

The first time I went to Speedweeks, I arrived on the Friday before the race. As a result, I got beaten down by colleagues on-scene. The gist: How could you miss the Duels? They are the best day of the year for NASCAR.

They were much like the old bump day at Indianapolis.

But while drivers have never grown weary of the risks associated with auto racing, sponsors have. In a sport which has never offered anybody any guarantees, the money people began demanding them.

The first response by NASCAR was the implementation of the rule which gives teams in the top 35 of owner points automatic entry to races. In the case of the Daytona 500 (and the four races which follow it on the schedule) it came to mean that every car which finished in the top 35 of owner points the preceding year, got into The Great American Race.

When other exemptions were added in, it meant that at best, six spots would be left unfilled on Duels day.

About all that would be decided on pre-500 Thursdays was starting order and when it comes to plate racing, starting order means zero.

There is something unseemly about watching the have-nots fight for the scraps which have fallen off the big boys’ tables. But, since the top-35 rule was adopted in 2005, at least there was that fight to watch on Duels day.

Now, the unseemliness has been bored and stroked. This year even more tradition and excitement has been skimmed from the churn as the concept of team franchising has weaseled its way into the mix.

The most visible, the most significant, case of it revolves around Danica Patrick and Stewart-Haas Racing. Patrick can finish dead last on Thursday and will still be in the 500 on Sunday. That’s because her team (and sponsor) bought – by way of a complex quid pro quo with Tommy Baldwin Racing – their way in.

A couple of days ago, NASCAR vice president of operations Steve O’Donnell met with reporters and talked about the deal.

“It’s a difficult thing to explain to the fans,” he said. “We get that. But we’ve got to have healthy car owners out there, and that’s ultimately what we try to do – make sure the garage is as healthy as possible.”

There are a couple of kinds of health involved here. There is the financial health of the sport and then there is its emotional health. One does affect the other but the former can also infect the latter.

Downgrading the excitement of things like the Gatorade Duels and the concept of earning success rather than purchasing it can viewed as another misstep by a racing series which appears to be on the mend after several years of sore throats and achy muscles.

A couple of years ago, Darrell Waltrip told reporter/colleague Joe Menzer, “I’m a firm believer – and I felt this way when I was a former champion using a champion’s provisional – that it should be the fastest 43 cars. That’s what racing is about; that’s what competition is about; that’s what this sport is about.”

This year, few have spoken out against the Patrick deal and the further dismantling of the Duels. Too bad, too, because NASCAR is listening these days: Just, in this case, more to the money people than the fans.

You can – quite easily, in fact – argue that the current path is the correct path. Certainly, its the path that has evolved.

Some of the companies sponsoring teams, cars and drivers are spending tens of millions of dollars. They have the right to make some demands. And they have the right to do everything within the rules to cut down on their financial risks.

Fans who yearn for the days when racing was the horse and high finance was the cart, can (and should) still get a fix of that at their local short tracks. At the speedway, the golden rule rules.

And I like the fact that the Baldwin team will benefit a bit – Tommy is a racer, David Reutimann is a racer;  though the assertion that the deal was allowed to go through to benefit TBR more than the Danica Patrick franchise is absurd.

As O’Donnell absolutely correctly says, the money being poured into the sport by sponsors is essential to the maintenance of the sport as we now know it.

Whether the sport we now know can sustain its relevance will ultimately be decided by each individual ticket-holder or t-shirt buyer.

Me, I just wish there was a little more relevance and excitement attached to Thursday’s Gatorade Duels.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, February 22 2012
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