ANDREJEV: NASCAR makes confusing decision to pull female driver from Talladega Cup race

ALEX ANDREJEV
The Charlotte Observer (TNS)
Jennifer Jo Cobb prepares for NASCAR truck qualifying at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

After nearly two decades of NASCAR starts, Jennifer Jo Cobb will not make her debut in the sport's top series at Talladega.

NASCAR said Monday that Cobb was not approved to race at the superspeedway event, counteracting an earlier announcement by Rick Ware Racing that the 47-year-old driver would start for the team in the Cup Series this weekend.

That also means Cobb will not be poking her head through any glass ceilings previously shattered by women behind the wheel. She was slated to be the first woman to compete in the Cup Series since Danica Patrick in 2018, but the sanctioning body reviewed Cobb's resume and deemed she wasn't qualified to compete at the event.

What gives? Is it sexism? Ageism? Retaliation for an incident at Richmond last week involving Cobb and Norm Benning? NASCAR says no.

According to NASCAR's rule book, a Resume Committee determines whether a driver is approved to compete in the series and, if approved, which types and sizes of racetracks the driver may compete. The committee, headed by former driver Brett Bodine and other competition officials, bases its evaluation on previous competitive performance.

"Any previously approved driver who has not competed for at least one year, must resubmit the Driver Information and Record application," the rule states.

She was approved in 2015: Cobb, a full-time Truck Series driver, was approved to race in the Cup Series in 2015, but she had to resubmit an application for approval this year given the rule. Team owner Rick Ware told The Observer that Cobb informed the team that she was approved to race in the series prior to the announcement. It is unclear whether Cobb knew she was required to resubmit an application for approval or assumed she would be approved. Cobb declined to comment.

Ware said the team is very familiar with the licensing and application process, as they have worked with several Cup Series rookies in the past.

"The team was under the impression Jennifer was approved, based on prior conversations," Ware said via text Tuesday.

"Unfortunate situation:" The team released a statement from Ware on Monday that indicated that the team had been informed by NASCAR that Cobb was not approved for the weekend and called it an "unfortunate situation."

"But as a team, we support NASCAR's decision to uphold the sanctioning body's rules and regulations," Ware's statement said.

A case involving the same rule prevented James Davison from making his Cup debut at Talladega last year. The sports car racer was named on the entry list as the driver of the No. 77 for Spire Motorsports, but NASCAR pulled Davison from the event given the lack of practice and qualifying under pandemic protocols. (He had previously made just four starts in a NASCAR national series, all in the Xfinity Series.)

Davison made his Cup debut the following weekend at Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile triangle.

Track plays a role: According to a NASCAR spokesperson, the type of track — meaning whether it is considered a short track, intermediate or superspeedway — factors into the Resume Committee's decision on driver approval, with a more selective approval process for the longer tracks. Still, each driver license request is determined on a "case-by-case" basis.

Cobb has made 11 starts at Talladega — twice in Xfinity and nine times in the Truck Series. While it's one of her better tracks, where she's led 20 laps in Trucks and has two lead-lap finishes, her lead-lap totals were a likely strike against her; Cobb has finished less than 5% of her combined Xfinity and Truck races on the lead lap racing for small, underfunded teams throughout her career.

A private process: Most of the licensing approval process, including the total number of license requests and denied requests, is not known to the public. NASCAR does not announce when a driver license request is submitted, meaning there are more examples of denials than the cases of Davison and Cobb, whose denied requests made news since they were previously announced entrants.

A NASCAR spokesperson said that the Resume Committee uses "all statistics" to determine license approval, including but not limited to the number of starts in a series, previous finishes and lead-lap finishes. NASCAR officials also review how a driver conducts themselves competitively, per the spokesperson, and will occasionally monitor how a driver races in other events before granting approval.

Competitive integrity issue: NASCAR has become increasingly scrupulous in recent years regarding its license approval process in order to boost or maintain the competitive integrity of the Cup field. NBC Sports pointed to a 2018 incident involving Tanner Berryhill in which NASCAR received questions around why it allowed a driver who had been out of the sport for multiple years to enter the championship Cup race. Berryhill ran the final two events of the 2018 season and finished off the lead lap in both cases.

But the issue for critics of NASCAR's licensing process and requirements is not over a more stringent set of standards to improve the racing. Rather, the argument goes that it would be beneficial to industry members — drivers, teams, fans and media — for more specificity around the performance criteria a driver must meet in order to compete. That could help avoid botched announcements that kill the momentum of a milestone moment for a sport that's trying to promote diversity.

"I think all of us would support a transparent process to get a Cup license based on success and/or time spent in Trucks/Xfinity or a pro motorsport equivalent," part-time Xfinity driver Tommy Joe Martins wrote on Twitter. "Something along the lines of a Super License in FIA w/ a driver review board. Make it clear for fans & competitors."

Inconsistencies: More recent inconsistencies in approvals have also complicated the process. For example, Quin Houff was approved to race in the Cup Series in 2019 after 10 starts in the Xfinity Series with two lead-lap finishes. Houff's percentage of lead-lap finishes prior to approval (20%) was much higher than Cobb's, but 62-year-old Derrike Cope's entry at this year's Daytona 500 could serve as a counterpoint.

NASCAR approved Cope to race in the superspeedway event for Rick Ware Racing based on the fact that he was a prior Daytona 500 winner who raced in multiple Cup events over the last four years. However, Cope's Daytona 500 win was more than 30 years ago. He's finished on the lead lap 11% of the 428 Cup races he's started, but has not had a lead-lap finish in more than 20 years.

In this year's Daytona 500, Cope cut a tire at the end of the third lap and crashed into the wall, officially ending his day.

New public precedent set: Ware said it would be impossible to have a standard metric to determine approval because there are so many drivers competing in diverse series around the world with different backgrounds and racing experiences. But it could benefit the sport to iron out some of these points.

Regardless, NASCAR has set a new public precedent with Cobb, one that says 248 national series starts won't earn a driver a place in the top series. The question then becomes, what will?