The Final Word – The next Richard Childress won’t come from today’s start and park posseBy Ron Thornton
Why, oh why, does NASCAR insist on allowing start and park entries? It is like inviting the Kannapolis Intimidators to take part in the odd MLB weekend schedule. I may be a bit off, but I really don’t think you should mix the minor leaguers with your major leaguers in the hopes that the experience might turn one of them into the next big thing.
But it has happened before, they say. You don’t want to miss out on the Richard Childress, they claim. So, Childress ran a bunch of races and parked well before the end of the contest, and did so for years and years? Not quite.
It was September 14, 1969 that Childress took his Chevy out in the 44th race of the season, at Talladega. This was the year of the driver’s strike, when the stars boycotted the race. He only ran 80 of the 188 laps before an axle put him out. 36 cars took to the track that day, with Childress finishing ahead of 13 of them in 23rd. Not a start and park effort, albeit against weaker opposition that featured only a handful of name drivers..
Three years later, he tried again. He attempted to qualify in 15 events, starting all but one of them. Childress managed to still be running at the end in just three. He ran at Richmond, but managed only 8 laps before finishing 29th out of 30. Maybe a start and park. A couple weeks later he was at Darlington, finished 37th out of 40 in running just 56 out of 492 laps. Maybe a start and park.
In April, Childress was at Bristol where he finished the race, though he was 97 laps down. Yet, that proved good enough to be 18th out of 30 in a contest that saw Bobby Allison beat out Bobby Isaac by four laps, and Richard Petty by nine, and those were the closest to him. Definitely not a start and park.
It was not the most successful of seasons, though he did finish 19th out of 40 entries at Michigan that year. He finished ahead of 8 cars per race, on average, and completed just over a quarter of the laps scheduled. Maybe there is an argument that Richard Childress started out as a start and park practitioner, making them easy big bucks. All $7540 of them, or in 2012 dollars Richard Childress over the course of 14 events made the equivalent of under $45,000 in today’s currency. No wonder the boy is a millionaire.
By the way, Childress did not enter a Cup car as an owner again for another four years. He drove for others, rang up 20 Top Tens over that time. However, he was not a Cup owner again until 1976 when he ran the full 30 race schedule, claiming 11 Top Tens. Definitely not a start and park. Previous to that, he owned a Cup car for a single race in 1969, 14 more in 1972, and waiting four more before coming back for real as a true major league competitor. How does the Childress story relate to today’s start and park operations? It does not.
Joe Nemechek ran for the Nationwide title, but ran for cash on the Sprint Cup circuit. He has started and parked for much of the past three seasons, taking in more than $8-million in “earnings.” His average finish is 40th, completing less than 20% of the scheduled laps, in 104 races over that three year time frame. Again, how does this relate to the path taken by Richard Childress? Again, it does not.
Unless those 15 races, the one in 1969 and the 14 more in 1972, provided Childress with the knowledge, the contacts, and the improved equipment that he rolled out with in 1976, his start and park experience did not contribute much of anything to his eventual success. I appreciate teams starting up and testing themselves against the big boys. Should they fall short, however, we should expect them to return to the drawing board and another series to be better prepared, rather than to return again and again to the Sprint Cup pay window.
Having start and park entries in Sprint Cup is like having the first batter in every MLB game face a Little Leaguer on the mound, before we pack the little fellow off to the bench. It is like having a WWE battle royal where the first couple of wrestlers in the ring are your mom and mine, to be followed by the Rock, the Undertaker, and Triple H. It is like having me show up to compete in a world class gymnastics competition, or diving, or a marathon, or…well, you get the idea.
There has always been start and park entries in NASCAR, we are told. Why, I ask? Picking up more than a quarter million for running ten laps doesn’t make much sense to me, especially if they don’t have the tires to even attempt to run it all. Makes more sense to have them pay up before hand, to pay the $20,000 to lease the rubber for the race (teams lease, not buy, their tires). As Sunoco gives out its fuel for free, the goal then is to keep the car clean and available to “race” again for these start and park folks. So, let us confiscate those cars finishing outside the Top 40 for four weeks. That is an easy $250,000 or more hit, even if it is temporary. Finish near the bottom then you better have another car in the inventory if you want to race anytime soon. I think that just might solve the problem. If a final three finish had cost Richard Childress the use of his car for a month, back in 1972 such a rule would have cost him once, that first race of the season and only his second as a car owner.
Those who start and park do so for the money, and as long as they keep their expenses down and don’t wreck the car, they can continue to dip into the well for as long as they can qualify for a race. What we also know is that the exercise has not and will not produce the next Richard Childress.