News & Media

Top-35 rule changing game for some at ACS

March 23, 2012, Bill Kimm,

FONTANA, Calif. -- Pressure mounts on some unexpected drivers as top-35 rule wreaks havoc

Every year at this time, a line is drawn in the proverbial sand. It's a line no one likes to discuss or even think about, yet it lingers over those flirting with both sides like a dark, thunderous cloud just waiting to release its lightning.

It's the top-35 line.

"You don't want to fall out of it but you don't think about it. If we sit around thinking about what happens if we fall outside, we're in trouble. So we just focus on what we have to do each weekend."


After the first five races, the judgment shifts to this season's points. If a car isn't in the top 35 in owner points, it isn't guaranteed one of the 43 positions to race on Sunday. It means a driver who is piloting a car outside the top 35 must now qualify his or her way into the race, even if that driver had been locked into the first five.

While on paper it doesn't seem like a big deal, for those outside the top 35, a new pressure is added to a race weekend. Now, the team can't focus on race setup in the first practice -- it spends every second working on qualifying. It means a driver must now execute a perfect qualifying lap because one slip could mean you're going home two days early. Being outside the top 35 completely alters a race weekend and the drivers know it.

This year, some pretty big names in the sport are hovering around that line as the Cup Series heads west to Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400, although they acknowledge they don't want to think about it.

"No sense worrying about it until you're not in it," said David Reutimann, whose No. 10 Chevrolet owned by Tommy Baldwin is currently outside the line, sitting 36th, four points behind the No. 83 BK Racing Toyota driven by Landon Cassill.

"To tell you the truth, I haven't looked since we started the year. I'm just going to wait until after the race is over and figure out where we are at then."

Reutimann might feel extra pressure because of who he shares the No. 10 with -- Stewart-Haas Racing's Danica Patrick. And while Patrick is only focused on her Nationwide efforts this weekend at Fontana, she admits she will be watching how Reutimann does on Sunday, partly because she had a hand in the No. 10's situation.

"I'm definitely paying attention -- I'm aware," Patrick said. "As it is in Nationwide, starting off the year with a tough result -- which I drove the No. 10 car and had a tough result to start the year in Daytona -- so I definitely put them in the hole to start. It just takes a while to climb out.

"Another solid finish will hopefully put them on the right path, but either way it's going to be fine. It's all about learning and if we have to qualify, we do. But I have faith and I'm sure things will work out. David's a good driver and Tommy Baldwin has help from Stewart-Haas so I'm sure everything will work out."

Casey Mears, who is on the positive side of the line with his No. 13 Germain Racing Ford in 33rd, 10 points ahead of Reutimann's No. 10, agrees with the man trying to catch him and doesn't want to even ponder the top-35 cutoff.

"I really don't even think about it at all to be honest," Mears said. "We got off to a rocky start but I think our potential is a lot better than where we are sitting. We just had some things happen at the start of the year that just don't typically happen at all. To be honest, as long as we keep our heads down and do what we know we can do, I don't see us having an issue with that unless there is something outside that affects us."

That is exactly what happened to Kasey Kahne, who finds himself 34th in owner points, just three points ahead of 35th and seven ahead of Reutimann.

Kahne is in his first year in Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5 and his season was not supposed to start like this. He was involved in a crash not of his causing at Daytona; finished 34th at Phoenix after slamming the wall early; came home 19th at Las Vegas despite starting on the pole; and wrecked early last week in Bristol after contact with Regan Smith which led to a 37th-place finish.

All that gives Kahne just one lead-lap finish in 2012 and puts him in a monstrous hole to start the season. But Kahne isn't focused on the top 35, he just wants to finally bring home a good finish.

"My biggest thing is just to finish," Kahne said. "It's not because I'm going to be out of the top 35, it's because I haven't finished with a clean car this year."

Kahne has the best starting position of those on the bubble. Despite heavy winds picking up during his qualifying run, Kahne will start Sunday's race fifth. Reutimann qualified 18th while Cassill will roll off 31st and Mears right behind him in 33rd.

Whatever happens Sunday, things will be different for some as the series shifts to Martinsville. Some drivers will be able to focus solely on the race while others will now be racing an imaginary line that can alter the mind-set of a season.

"You don't want to fall out of it but you don't think about it," Mears said. "If we sit around thinking about what happens if we fall outside, we're in trouble. So we just focus on what we have to do each weekend."