NASCAR Sprint Unlimited Changes Not Designed Only to Help Danica Patrick

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by Ryan Isley

When it comes to NASCAR, the only thing that seems to stay the same is the need for change. Or the perceived need for change, in some cases.

The latest thing NASCAR has done was change the guidelines for qualification into the Sprint Unlimited once again in 2015. The new ways that a driver can now qualify for the Sprint is to have made the Chase for the Sprint Cup field in 2014 or to have been a previous winner of the pole in the Daytona 500. Those drivers will join drivers who won a pole in 2014 or are previous winners of the Sprint Unlimited.

The following ways are how the minimum of 25 drivers are eligible for the Sprint Unlimited:

  • 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup participants
  • 2014 Sprint Cup Series Pole winners
  • Previous winners of the Sprint Unlimited
  • Highest 2014 Sprint Cup Series Finishers who are not already eligible

When I first looked at these new changes, I (like many other people) noticed one thing – there was a new wrinkle that NASCAR had never used before in gaining entry into the Sprint Unlimited. The idea of admitting past Daytona 500 pole winners into the Sprint Unlimited was something that had never been used before. And after seeing this new twist, I could only help but immediately think of one very important beneficiary – one Danica Patrick.

Of course, she isn’t the only driver who would benefit from this, as Martin Truex Jr. is also now qualified for the Sprint Unlimited based solely on being a previous Daytona 500 pole sitter. But those are the only two as neither of the two drivers would have been in using any of the other criteria while every other driver fit at least one other entry eligibility.

Because the rule change affected Danica, it seemed only natural to question whether or not the intended purpose of the new rules was to include one of NASCAR’s hottest marketing tools. After all, the rule was not needed in 2014, as Danica stunned everyone and won the pole in her first race as a full-time driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at the 2013 Daytona 500. That pole gained her entry into the 2014 Sprint Unlimited, where she finished 16th out of 18 drivers. The 2013 Daytona 500 is the last time she has been on the pole.

I brought this up to NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell on Twitter and while he did admit that I had a “fair point” in wondering if Danica’s marketability played a role in the rule change, he denied that she was the reason for the change.

 

While I am not so sure that I am buying 100% into what O’Donnell says about it being regardless of driver, he then made a good point about the size of the field as well. He told me that they wanted to get the field to a minimum of 25 drivers because racing 16 “doesn’t make sense.” And that is a good point. Had they gone with just the drivers who won a pole in 2014 and previous winners of the race, the field would have been 16 drivers.

Of course, I would never expect NASCAR to come straight out and say the rule changes were made for just one driver. They would never do that, whether it would be regarding car specs, tire adjustments or eligibility for an exhibition race. But what O’Donnell did was take the time to answer the question with a real answer and not just a ‘no.’ That would have been the easy thing to do. Well, that or just to ignore the tweet altogether. But that doesn’t seem to be the way NASCAR wants to operate, at least not from the seat of its executive vice president. O’Donnell has always been responsive and available when needed. That’s something I can respect.

Whether I believe the explanation or not – and for the record, I buy it to a certain degree – NASCAR has now said that this is a change that will stay in place going forward. Now it will be up to them to hold themselves to these changes after 2015 as well.

But at the end of the day, I still have to wonder if when it comes to NASCAR, it’s Danica Patrick’s world and we are all just living in it. I guess we will find out.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryan.isley@morethanafan.net. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.