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Out of Bounds: fieldfillers point of racing

by Derek Clarkston, Sports editor

Major League Baseball has them. The National Football League has them. The National Basketball League has them. And even the National Hockey League has them. So why does NASCAR think they are any different?


The “them” that I am referring to are the cellar-dwelling teams that are inevitable in every form of sports: not everybody can win. They are the ones who don’t have the money to compete with the multimillion-dollar teams that actually buy world championships because they can afford the star players.

It’s the lowly teams, though, that make sports interesting, not just because they can be spoilers, but because on any given night they can go out and reenact the epic tale of David and Goliath.
Jeff Gordon, one of NASCAR’s most prominent drivers, voiced his opinion about NASCAR’s version of cellardwellers, the field fillers, after one of the them, Andy Hillenberg, wrecked Gordon’s number 24 Dupont car in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington, S.C. on March 21.

“ I’ll tell you what. There are a bunch of cars out there that do not belong out there,” said Gordon in an article on the ESPN Web site. “They’re way off the pace. They’re in the way. We [just] about had several wrecks before that, and I came on the radio and asked if NASCAR could take some guys off the track, not just because they’re slow but because they’re in the way.”

Even though the slower cars might have been in the way, NASCAR didn’t ask them to make an early exit from the race. It hasn’t done so from the very beginning of NASCAR in 1949, when races were actually held on the beach at Daytona Beach, Fla. But that is just about the only thing that hasn’t changed about stock car racing, especially now that NASCAR is heading in a new direction and leaving some of its historic practices in the dust: the tracks, the rules, and the sponsorship.

With Brian France taking over for his father, Bill France Jr., as the CEO of NASCAR, the sport has changed its name from the Winston Cup Circuit to the Nextel Cup Circuit. It has made a controversial rule change that makes later season races more important. And it is in the process of eliminating some of NASCAR’s historic tracks, such as Darlington, S.C.

Despite all these changes, the 43-car field for every race is still a staple, even though some drivers, including Gordon, hope that France and other NASCAR officials will take a closer look at the field fillers.

When NASCAR first started, a young gun who didn’t have a car could fix up his (no women drivers then) family’s Chrysler, drive it to the race track, and take a crack at beating the likes of Lee Petty, Benny Parsons, Tim Flock, and the other drivers. Today, however, the sport has left those daydreamers in the dust through advances in technology and the skyrocketing cost of competition.

With the advancement of technology, NASCAR is becoming more popular with every lapped turned, and if it doesn’t want to end up being black flagged (cars are black flagged when they either break the rules or are damaged and can’t compete any more) by its loyal fans, officials shouldn’t even consider letting go of the field fillers.

Even though Gordon and some of his peers believe NASCAR should lower the number of cars on the starting grid, how can NASCAR tell a driver with a license and enough money to put a car together that he or she can’t compete? What would have happened if NASCAR officials had told that to Dale Earnhardt or Sterling Marlin when those racing legends were trying to break into the sport?

Fans go out to the track to watch the stars of the sport compete, but when a car with no sponsor on the hood passes a big name for the lead, with fewer than 10 laps left in the race, they secretly cheer for the sponsorless driver. Take away the field fillers, and we fans will never have a chance to pull for an underdog again.

Hillenburg may not have the technology or millions of dollars in endorsements that Gordon does, but he has the same goal Gordon had when the race started, that is, to make it to the victory circle. If Hillenburg or another field filler were to come across the finish line first, it would make one heck of a story, and probably be the birth of a new star. These are just two reasons why NASCAR should keep field fillers as part of its heritage.


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