HAMPTON, Ga. — NASCAR will have its smallest Cup field in more than 21 years when 36 cars take the green flag for the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday.
NASCAR has not had a 36-car field since the September 1996 race at Martinsville Speedway, where the field was limited to 36 starters. There were 42 entries for that race.
With the implementation of the charter system in 2016, NASCAR guaranteed the 36 charter cars a spot in every Cup race, leaving four races open for non-charter cars. There are no “open” cars entered in Sunday’s race.
Non-charter teams earn only 35 percent of what a charter team earns for entering a race. A charter team also makes money based on performance from the previous three years of the chartered car, while an open team gets no money for any previous performance. The amounts paid for a certain finishing position and the season-ending standings are the same.
Several small-team owners who used to field multiple cars have scaled back, as the payment for an open car — as low as $40,000 a race other than Daytona 500 — is not enough to cover expenses without sponsorship.
NASCAR considers a 36-car field a “full” field. There were only 40 entries for the Daytona 500, meaning no driver was sent home from the qualifying races for the first time in 49 years.
“When you look across all of sports now, the idea of sending someone home with a major sponsor just doesn’t happen in sports today,” NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said in Daytona. “And it’s not just a reality for NASCAR, it’s really all motorsports and sports in general.
“So I’d tend to concentrate more on the field that we have, the quality of field that we have, and the incredible drivers and storylines.”
NASCAR said it would not comment beyond the O’Donnell comments from Daytona.
Brad Keselowski, who shut down his truck team after last season but has left the door open to return as a team owner in Cup after his driving career ends, said he couldn’t decide how to feel about a 36-car field.
“There are some parts of me that think it’s awful and some parts of me that think it kind of makes sense,” Keselowski said. “I think we were in a spot before in this sport where it didn’t really make sense 10 years ago when we sent home guys with great sponsors and they didn’t get to race.
“I thought that was terrible, and then I’ve decided it doesn’t make perfect sense to me to not have a full field, so I don’t know. Both sides of it I can completely understand, so I don’t know if there’s a right answer for this sport.”
There were 42 Xfinity cars entered for a 40-car field at Atlanta and 34 trucks entered for a 32-car field this weekend.
“I know that we are lucky enough to have second- and third-tier series that provide an opportunity for anyone to show up and have a place to race,” Keselowski said. “You would prefer to see those series utilized, but I do feel like NASCAR racing is at its best at 40-car fields.”