In an extremely high-profile signing in a world where top drivers like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are driving under unspoken lifetime contracts, Dale Earnhardt Jr
The top of the standings in the Sprint Cup Series is typically littered with big-money teams backed by sponsors willing to throw millions of dollars at having a successful race program. With such an investment, sponsors have many divergent expectations for their teams.
Perhaps one of the more important expectations is to be able to associate one individual driver as the racing face of their business. At least one demand usually takes priority over having a marketable individual behind the wheel when the race starts - actually making the race! Sponsors pay to see their logos in the races on Saturday nights and Sundays, and teams will go to any length to deliver. After failing to qualify himself, Michael Waltrip once purchased a spot in the race day field for $100,000 from another competitor who had successfully qualified. A more common tactic is replacing the full-time driver with a part-time driver who is believed to have a better chance of qualifying for the weekend's race.
Past Champion's Provisional
The use of part-time drivers is almost always focused on getting a car into the field. Inasmuch, you will usually see one of two types of fill-in drivers:
- Past champions eligible for the past champion's provisional
- Specialists on the type of track where the race is being run on a given weekend.
The past champion's provisional was created in 1991, largely in response to Richard Petty missing the spring race at Richmond in 1989. The purpose was to make sure a past champion - and in this case a racing legend, which fans were specifically paying their money to see race - was in the race field. The past champion's provisional took on many forms through 1998, when Darrell Waltrip used it to make the field in 20 races. At that point, Cup rule makers determined to limit the number of past champion's provisionals that one driver or team could use. Currently, past champions can enter six races on the past champion's provisional, which was set prior to the 2005 season. Owners also are limited to six, regardless of which driver they use.
To complicate matters, the top 35 in owner points are guaranteed to make a race in which they attempt to qualify, leaving eight spots available to any teams outside the top 35 hoping to qualify. If a team can put an eligible past champion in the car, they are guaranteed one of those eight spots. Further, only one past champion can take the provisional, so the most recent champion is given priority. A provisional isn't charged if the past champion qualifies for the race by other means - either top 35 in owner points or on time. Confused?
Thankfully, there are only three drivers that are relevant to this discussion as past champions not on a top-35 team. In order of priority for what becomes a 36th guaranteed starting spot, they are Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte.
For the first five races, the top 35 in owner points from last season are locked into the field. The No. 44 UPS Toyota is not in the top 35, but Jarrett will run the first five races of 2008, guaranteeing the team will be in the field in each race before the top 35 in owner points is reset after the race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Jarrett insures long-time sponsor UPS a slot in the first five fields and presumably the best opportunity to get car owner Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 44 car into the top 35 in points. Jarrett then turns the car over to David Reutimann, who is considered the full-time driver of the No. 44 car.
Elliott is locked into the No. 21 Little Debbie's Ford for 17 races. Wood Brothers/JTG Racing will have the security of falling back on the past champion's provisional once Jarrett steps out of the No. 44 car after Bristol. Labonte is not attached to a team at this point, but his six guaranteed starts are likely to be coveted at some point during the season by a team on the fringe of the top 35.
Labonte may represent the most successful use of the past champion's provisional under the new rules implemented in 2005. The No. 96 car owned by Hall of Fame Racing tapped Labonte to race for them in the first five races in 2006, guaranteeing the new team a starting spot that it would not have had otherwise. Labonte used the past champion's provisional on multiple occasions for the first five events and raced the No. 96 car to 30th in owner points. The No. 96 car ultimately participated in all 36 races of 2006 and has been in the field for every race in each of its two seasons of existence.
The past champion's provisional is not a guarantee to make the top 35, however. In 2007, Jarrett was unable to get into the top 35 despite his free pass into the first five races. Out of provisionals and having to qualify on time, the No. 44 car only ran in 18 races in 2007 and finished outside the top 35. Jarrett and his provisional are back in 2008 hoping for a different outcome.
Part-time drivers are also commonly used as specialists on specific racetrack types. This is most apparent at the road course races at Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen International. "Road Course Ringers," drivers with much more experience on these types of tracks, are brought in to handle the right turns and flat race surfaces unique to these two races. Sometimes cars are fielded specifically for a road course specialist such as Boris Said, who, driving for a part-time program, has finished in the top 10 in two of the last four road course races.
Said represents an exception to the norm, however. Usually the best of the ringers are brought in as replacements on cars that are struggling to make or stay in the top 35 in points. For teams in the top 35, the potential for a top-10 finish is enough incentive to leave their full-time driver on the sidelines for two weeks a season. For teams not in the top 35 in points, the ringers not only offer a rare chance for an excellent finish, but the best chance for qualifying on time.
Interestingly, in the past two seasons, this approach has been best used by the No. 96 car. In 2006, they brought Labonte back to drive the road course races. Not only did Labonte still have a past champion's provisional, but he happened to have a reputation for being a good road course performer, offering an upgrade over full-time driver Tony Raines. Labonte was in the field for both races, posting a huge third-place finish at Infineon to solidify the No. 96 car's place in the top 35 at a point when it was teetering. Last season, the No. 96 car went to the well again, this time bringing in a true ringer in Ron Fellows. He brought the No. 96 car home in 15th and fourth on the two tracks, once again helping Hall of Fame Racing put their car comfortably into the top 35.
We see that using part-time drivers is a desperation move by the lesser teams in Sprint Cup. Their goal is to get their teams into the race and ultimately in the top 35 in owner points. Of the teams using this tactic over the past two seasons, only Hall of Fame Racing's No. 96 car has delivered the coveted spot in the top 35. With the No. 96 car solidly in the top 35, the team is moving to its next phase by bringing in a promising young driver in J.J. Yeley to build the program around.
Michael Waltrip Racing, Wood Brothers Racing and Gillett Evernham Motorsports have also employed the part-time driver strategy but are not in the top 35 to start the 2008 season. As noted, these teams aren't done trying with the No. 44 and No. 21 cars, playing musical chairs this year to take advantage of Jarrett and Elliott's past champion's provisional. Such juggling acts can be unsettling for teams, but clearly their owners believe that their best chance of getting their teams into the top 35 is by employing part-time drivers whenever feasible.
We recommend fantasy owners stay away from these situations. Due to his position in the top 35, Yeley in the No. 96 car represents an interesting sleeper play. All of the other teams mentioned here - the No. 44 car, No. 55 car, No. 00 car and No. 21 car - are worth watching. But REMEMBER, these teams will be juggling drivers, and in most instances fantasy owners own the driver, not the car. Go ahead and grab a road course ringer for a spot start in deeper leagues, but otherwise stay away from the fill-ins until their situations are more settled.