Should Money Be The Final Qualifier?

Lennon and McCartney said it "Can't Buy Me Love". Parents across the country tell their kids it "doesn't grow on trees". And an old proverb calls it "the root of all evil". But this week, Michael Waltrip displayed its true value by using his money to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600.

After failing to qualify for this weekend's race, Waltrip made headlines, and sparked some serious debate, by buying his way into the NASCAR Nextel Cup race. He purchased the seat of Derrike Cope and the #74 car, which had qualified in the final position for the race. The car will be repainted with Waltrip's number and sponsors, and be driven, of course, by Waltrip.

Did he violate any NASCAR rules? Not even close. NASCAR rules say a car CAN change drivers between qualifying and the race. Generally, this rule is used when a driver plans to be in the race, but has other commitments during qualifying. It's rare, but it has happened in the past. The rule simply says the driver will have to start the race at the back of the field, instead of where the "fill-in" driver qualified. It's much the same as changing an engine after qualifying. What Waltrip did was use that rule to his advantage.

Was what he did ethical? That's the bigger question. He's certainly made it look to the world like NASCAR is all about money, and not about driving. Apparently it's the sponsors who are the most important. Not the car development, or the drivers.

Shouldn't the 43 best drivers and cars be out on the track when the race starts? If Waltrip and his win car didn't make the field, then for this week, he's not one of those 43. If a driver were to get injured between qualifying and race day (such as almost happened to both Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart in Saturday Night's Busch Series race) then a driver like Waltrip who didn't qualify could certainly fill in for the injured driver. But buying their way in just seems wrong.

There are also no NASCAR rules against repainting the car to change sponsorship decals, or changing the cars number. But maybe there should be. In this case, people have suggested that it's all about the sponsors. Waltrip is doing what he has to to get his sponsors into the race. But what about Derrike Cope's sponors? They paid good money for the development of their car. And their car managed to qualify the proper way. And now they are out of the race.

If it really is all about the sponsors, then maybe a NASCAR rule stating that the sponsors and car number listed for a car can't be changed between qualifying and race day would put a stop to deals like the one Waltrip has pulled off. If a driver really wanted to race, because he loves racing, and not because he wants to be a provider for his sponsors, then he might still "buy his way in", but it would be more for the driver and not the sponsors.

NASCAR can be a tricky business, and is full of loopholes in the rules that allow for such things as Michael Waltrip buying his way into a race. But if Waltrip had instead spent that money on his car and team so that he ran better on the track, maybe he wouldn't have had to worry about buying someone else's ride. He would have qualified on his own.

Published on May 29, 2006 in