AP National Writer
HAMPTON, Ga. — All eyes will be on the guys up front during Sunday’s NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
It might be worth taking a look at who’s running toward the back.
Or, more accurately, who isn’t there.
Only 39 cars showed up for the second race of the Sprint Cup season, the lowest number of entries in more than two decades. It marks just the third time since NASCAR standardized the fields in 1998 that there aren’t enough cars to fill every available slot.
While the reduced numbers won’t affect front-runners such as Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin — after all, we’re talking about low-budget drivers who probably would’ve been lapped early in the race — it does drive home the end of an era.
Farewell to those penny-pinching teams that merely want to go fast enough in qualifying to hang around through the weekend.
Another part of the sport’s colorful history has been cast aside.
“We’ve lost a lot,” said former driver Dave Marcis, who spent much of his long career simply trying to qualify for races in under-financed cars. He remembers a time when “if you were the little guy and didn’t have any money and were not capable of winning the race, the fans still respected you when you made that race.”
This season, NASCAR will be hard-pressed to get the new maximum — 40 cars — on the track each week. By the end of the year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see as few as 37.
Former team owner Phil Parsons doesn’t necessarily consider that a bad thing. He ran one of those mom-and-pop operations, shutting it down during the 2015 season for financial reasons.
“I hate the fact that we don’t have 50 or 60 cars attempting to qualify,” said Parsons, the brother of late Cup champion Benny Parsons. “That’s just where we are right now. We have a new normal.”
NASCAR was keenly aware of dwindling car counts when it agreed to a “charter system” — essentially, recasting racing teams as sports franchises with an eye toward enhancing their value, creating more financial stability and hopefully luring some fresh financial blood into the sport.
That last point is especially important when you look at the roster of powerful owners: Rick Hendrick is 66, while Richard Childress, Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs, Richard Petty and Roger Penske are all in their 70s.
If you’re one of the 36 charter teams, the future looks bright. You’re guaranteed a spot in every race and some bang for your buck.
If lacking a charter, it simply doesn’t pay to compete on a regular basis unless you have a major sponsor, like the Wood Brothers. The race purses are still a bit of a mystery under the new arrangement, but it seems the charter teams are claiming a hefty piece of that pie, too, with an eye toward nudging out the start-and-park teams that showed up merely to collect a last-place paycheck.
Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was taken aback when told there were only 39 Cup teams in Atlanta. But, he quickly added, “The whole point of the charter system was to create quality over quantity.”
Forget about seeing another driver such as Marcis, who famously competed in wing-tip shoes and managed to operate his own team over much of his 35-year-career, sometimes hopping out of the car to work on it himself during races. From NASCAR’s perspective, the little guy is a necessary casualty to ensure the money keeps flowing.
Clearly, though, it’s a work in progress. Even after scaling back the 43-car field, which had been in place for 18 years, NASCAR didn’t even hit the new target just two weeks into the season. This is the smallest number of teams at a Cup race since 35 attempted to qualify for the 1993 Goody’s 500 at Martinsville Speedway, and more contraction is likely.
“I’m not sure how it’s all going to shake out,” Parsons said, “but I don’t necessarily see three non-charter teams continuing to run.”
A decade ago, the Cup garage was overrun with teams. The 2006 Daytona 500 had 58 entries. Fifty-two cars turned up that year for the spring race in Atlanta. Ten other races had at least 50 entries.
Now, we’ve got the first Cup race with fewer than 40 drivers since a 37-car field for the last race held at North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1996, according to STATS.
“If you don’t have teams that are interested in trying to get into the sport, that should tell you something,” said the 74-year-old Marcis, who retired from NASCAR in 2002 but still has a racing shop near Asheville, North Carolina.
The season-opening Daytona 500 drew only 44 cars — the lowest number of entries in the 58-year history of NASCAR’s most storied event. The number of full-time teams is down to 38, and The Motorsports Group — a beggarly operation simply trying to survive from week to week — is the only other team to enter the first two races.
The No. 30 car failed to qualify for the Daytona 500. Likewise for the No. 98 owned by Premium Motorsports, which leased its charter to a more-competitive team and therefore surrendered its guaranteed spot.
At least those two teams don’t have to worry about missing out this week. Atlanta will have its smallest field for a Cup race since 1983.
The way things are going in NASCAR, showing up is all it takes to get in the race.
And that ain’t racin’.