NASCAR's Black Eye Highlights Societal Changes

31 March 2019

Is It Time to End NASCAR Cup Qualifying?

Failing to serve in NASCAR’s Modern Era the purpose that it once had in decades past, perhaps the time has come to end the farce that is Cup qualifying. For the second time this season, NASCAR’s new group qualifying format for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has been made a laughing stock by the very teams participating in it. Two weeks ago, in the third and final round of group qualifying on Friday, 15 March 2019, for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, none of the 12 drivers managed to roll off pit road and make it back to the start-finish line before time ran out and the black and red flags were displayed. As a result, the starting order resorted the last lap times run by the drivers… in the previous round. A second qualifying debacle Friday, 29 March, at Texas Motor Speedway, was almost as bad and showed the teams virtually thumbing their noses at the sanctioning body and its new qualifying rules designed to force teams to behave better and put on a better show for the fans during the qualifying sessions.

Fans, drivers, and NASCAR officials were shocked and appalled by the lack of action taken by the teams in California in mid-March, and the sanctioning body vowed to find a way to fix those problems so they never happen again. Among the rule changes implemented in the wake of the California SNAFU, drivers would be required to keep the center lane of pit road open while staging along the sides of pit road awaiting their qualifying run, and drivers failing to make a single lap during a qualifying session would have their times disallowed and be forced to start from the rear of the field when the race started. After announcing these changes on the Wednesday following the Auto Club 400, NASCAR officials and pundits alike seemed confident that the teams would now be forced to do what the sanctioning body wanted them to do in the first place and put on the show for the fans that NASCAR wants to convey. The drivers and crew chiefs, as well as a fair portion of the fans (judging by calls to the daily shows on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), however, cautioned that even with the new and clarified rules, teams would still do what they felt gave them the best chance for qualifying, even if that meant putting on a poor show for the fans.

At this point, it might be good to have a quick overview of the current group qualifying format. In the past, NASCAR’s qualifying efforts have focused on the traditional single-car runs, wherein the cars go on the track one at a time to run the two fastest laps they are capable of, with the driver having the fastest overall lap earning the pole position and continuing down the starting grid in descending order of lap speeds. Fans and television executives complained, however, that the single-car qualifying was boring and that the telecast of the sessions failed to garner the viewership that TV execs were looking for. NASCAR was pressured to make qualifying more “exciting,” and taking a page from Formula 1, introduced the concept of group qualifying. Under this construct, qualifying takes place in three stages, with the Top 24 fastest drivers from Stage 1 making it to Stage 2, from whence the field is then narrowed to the Top 12 fastest drivers to go for the pole position in Stage 3. It all sounds simple, but becomes considerably less so when you consider that on the longer speedways, group qualifying allows for the possibility of drafting, and considerably increasing one’s on-track pace.

With the knowledge that drafting increases one’s chances of grabbing the pole position, of course another element of gamesmanship entered the equation. Teams began waiting until the very last moment to leave pit road and make their laps, hoping to keep anyone else from having enough time to make additional laps and knock them from their position. This gamesmanship led to the SNAFU at Auto Club Speedway, with teams waiting so long to leave pit road that none of them were able to make the required qualifying lap. And the desire to continue the gamesmanship led to the problems this past Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, where teams followed NASCAR’s revised rules, parking long the sides of pit road in makeshift staging areas while they waited until the literal last second to leave and make their runs. There were several occasions, however, of drivers either leaving their staging positions and then illegally taking up a new one, or, in one case, blocking the center lane altogether and preventing drivers from being able to leave pit road and make their laps. And yet, NASCAR refused to enforce their own rules. None of those drivers were penalized, and what was left for the fans was another debacle that came down to 65 seconds of frenzy and chaos after waiting for nearly four minutes of complete and utter inactivity and rule-breaking.

All of this leads to a simple question, and one that was asked two weeks ago by Mike Bagley and Pete Pistone, the hosts of SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive:” Does qualifying still have a place in Modern Era NASCAR racing? For my part, I would argue that qualifying as we know it has no real place in NASCAR today.

At one time, qualifying was an integral part of the NASCAR race weekend, but that time has since passed. In fact, “qualifying” is a misnomer in today’s NASCAR, giving one the impression of a gaggle of cars and teams jockeying for position to be able to actually make the race’s handful of starting positions. That, however, has not been the case in NASCAR for at least the past 10 years, with rare exceptions, such as the season-opening Daytona 500. Where once there was weekly competition among 45 or more drivers to qualify for the race’s 43 starting positions, we have reached the point today where not only has the sanctioning body been forced to reduce the number of starting positions to 40, but the field regularly falls short of that number. And with the advent of the team charter system in 2016, 36 cars/drivers are now guaranteed entry into each race, leaving only four “open” slots to be filled through traditional qualifying. But with the number of race entries rarely rising above 38 today, qualifying is no longer about fighting to make the race. The focus is now on simply determining the starting positions for each driver in the field.

While there are still some benefits for winning the pole position for a given race, those benefits are not what they used to be and, quite frankly, fail to carry the same weight as they did 10 or 20 years ago. Yes, the pole winner still starts from the front and leads the field to the green flag to start the race. Yes, the pole winner still qualifies for the pre-season Clash at Daytona, which was historically open only to pole winners from the previous season, though new format changes have opened the door so that nearly half of the 2019 Clash field were not pole winners from 2018, but had made it into the exhibition race through some other means. And, yes, the pole winner still gets first pick of pit stalls on pit road. In today’s era, the latter benefit is largely the only one that still matters.

First pick of pit stalls is vitally important at many of the tracks on the NASCAR circuit today. The selection of a “bad” pit stall, allowing yourself to be potentially blocked in by other competitors pitting in front of or behind you, can severely jeopardize a team’s day at the track, leading to mistakes and miscues on pit road, and loss of on-track positions due to pit road problems. This is why the pole winning team will usually select the pit stall at either end of pit road, leaving them an opening to either enter or exit their pit uninhibited. This advantage can be crucial, and has been the difference in some drivers’ ability to take the checkered flag.

At this point, though, we have to ask ourselves if it is, indeed, worthwhile to continue asking drivers and teams to put out the time, expense, and effort to “qualify” for the race when there is very little advantage to doing so. As always, the good drivers with the fast cars will find their way to the front in the 300-600 miles of the race. NASCAR can, and will, constantly “tweak” the rules for getting into the Clash at Daytona, ensuring that there will be no shortage of drivers there. With the charter system in place and a dearth of teams attempting to make the field, it is a rare weekend when someone is actually turned away as a result of qualifying.

So what would be the harm if we were to do away with the spectacle of qualifying and replace it instead with, say, a random draw for starting position and pit selection. Both could, in fact, be random draws, with drivers first drawing from a bucket of numbers indicating starting positions, and then crew chiefs drawing from another bucket of numbers denoting pit stalls. Make it all random. When it comes race time, the fast drivers with fast cars will find their way to the front in the 300-600 miles afforded them, and the random pit draws will make abundantly clear which crew chiefs and pit crews are best able to adapt to the randomness of the situations and rise to the top. Forget the debacle and failure of qualifying excitement for fans and television audiences, and use that time and money to instead focus on making the racing product itself on Sunday the most exciting and fan-friendly it can be. The era of “qualifying” is no more.

*Note: Everything said above is intended to apply to all of the races during the NASCAR Cup season except for the Daytona 500 at the start of the season. Daytona has always had its own, unique qualifying format, and there is no reason to change the uniqueness of the first and greatest race of the NASCAR season.