Should NASCAR Be Concerned About “Start-and-Park?”

"Start and park" is a NASCAR phenomenon whereby fly-by-night outfits qualify for races only to park the car a few laps in (mechanical issues, a likely culprit). The primary goal of said effort, the decent-sized check awarded to even backmarkers. Though by no means unique to 2009 and its tough economic times, it’s become enough of a hot-button issue that Robin Pemberton, NASCAR VP of Competition (above), issued a statement last Friday outlining NASCAR’s opinion on the matter.

"We owe it to the garage area [to make sure] that everybody is on the up-and-up," Pemberton said. "When they [drop] out, we will continue to look at what put those cars out. What we’re going to encourage at this level is that people participate and do what they can do to race. What we want to prevent is someone legitimately trying to do a race setup and getting bumped out by somebody that may have gone above and beyond what the spirit of the rules are."

It appears that Pemberton was answering a question that hadn’t been asked, at least not very publicly as of last Friday. According to a long and comprehensive story at Frontstretch.com, NASCAR was said to have been extremely angry that two acknowledged start-and-parkers took spots from two teams that are busting their asses to make races, secure sponsorship, and make a legitimate effort to be competitive.

For the most part, when I’ve considered the issue, I’ve adopted the line articulated by Kasey Kahne as quoted by the same Frontstretch.com story: “If guys can figure a way out to make a living, enjoy themselves, make the race, and pull over…I don’t see anything wrong with it."

That philosophy, of course, ignores the inherent advantages open to a team that’s running a qualifying setup and not a full-on race package. At the very least, NASCAR needs to devise a system whereby start-and-parkers are not allowed an unfair advantage over teams making real, serious efforts to race.

Regardless, there was a more troublesome issue raised by the Frontstretch.com story: given its TV contract, NASCAR has a monetary incentive to see to it that fields are full each weekend and has apparently taken steps to ensure that they are, regardless of overall quality.

If that’s true — and it’s a charge that would be difficult to prove — it would appear that start-and-parkers aren’t the only ones guilty of undermining the spirit of true competition.