Qualifying in NASCAR Needs To Change

At Daytona, I sat and watched Cup qualifying for a couple hours. I watched each car get up to speed, run their two laps and then pull to the apron while the next car exited pit road. It’s a procedure repeated 43 times every weekend and it is, for lack of a better term, boring. Qualifying has stayed the same in NASCAR forever so I can understand the reluctance to alter it but a change needs to happen. NASCAR is going in the right direction with the elimination of the top 35 rule and group qualifying at road courses but they need to take it further than that.

When I watch Formula 1, V8 Supercars and even Indycar qualifying; I am on the edge of my seat the whole time and refuse to move until the session is over. Qualifying in NASCAR usually lacks drama, excitement and fails to keep most fans interested the whole time but it doesn’t have to be that way. The three formats used by the series’ I listed above are always wild and produce unexpected moments with the occasional controversy. NASCAR has plenty of options to make qualifying better; they just need to pick one or create their own, unique version. The complete abatement of the current format should be the course of action taken by NASCAR and here are a few ideas that would be good replacements…

Heat races. If NASCAR wants to keep to their roots, then heat races would be the way to go and I’m sure a large contingent of fans would be in favor of this. It’s used by almost every regional racing series around the country and is also used to set the starting lineup for stock car racing’s biggest event; the Daytona 500. If we already use it for our biggest race, then why not implement it in the other 35? It would be a sensational addition the weekend and would help the teams get better prepared for the big show. Indycar has begun using it a bit this year and from what I saw, fans really enjoyed watching them. I’m sure you’d have a lot of people tuning in to see it and regional racing series already have proof that it would be successful. I’m fairly confident that a qualifying format that has been used for over half a century and draws crowds close to that of the ones that show up for the race itself works.

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My second idea would be to copy Formula 1 to an extent. They have a knockout style of qualifying where there are three sessions with cars eliminated along the way until just 10 remain. Those 10 fight it out for the pole in a thrilling 10 minute session where the top spot isn’t decided until the final seconds. NASCAR could have 31st on back eliminated in Q1, 11th to 30th eliminated in Q2 and have the 10 fastest cars battle for the pole in Q3. That would definitely create some much needed excitement! Imagine Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson swapping the top spot as the clocks gets closer to zero. Each driver pushes harder and harder every lap as they try to outdo each other while their water temp rises and their tires wear out. They push the car to the absolute edge just trying to gain a couple more hundredths.  That is until a mistake is made and someone ends up going to a backup car or a slower car gets in the way causing some controversy and hurt feelings before the big race even starts!

My third idea is a simple one…10 minutes. Every car on the track at the same time. Best time wins pole. Go. You want to talk about a crazy qualifying session; imagine something like that at Bristol or Talladega! This volatile format would have drivers taking risks and making imprudent decisions resulting in 10 minutes of  utter chaos and pure drama. There would be one more rule regarding all three of these ideas which would make them even more breathtaking to watch. There would be points on the line. Not a lot of points but just enough to make everybody from Jimmie Johnson to David Ragan want them. Something like five points for pole, three for 2nd and one for 3rd. Just throw some points in front of these drivers and watch the intensity level rise instantly.

NASCAR could only gain from intensifying qualifying. They and the track would make more money, fans would have something to get excited about other than the race itself and it would create stories throughout the weekend that would help to hype up the event. An exciting qualifying format would help to bolster TV ratings as well. Next weekend, we will all patiently watch one car at a time go out for a couple laps, listen to the media ask the drivers the same questions as always regarding how it felt out there and if they left anything on the table while I sit here anxiously waiting for the next drama filled qualifying session in F1, Indycar and V8 Supercars. NASCAR is usually the first to do something in the racing world while the rest see it work and follow suit. In this situation, it’s time that NASCAR did the following.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

11 COMMENTS

  1. I wonder if Twin Races Every Weekend would help Qualifying? I like to see those because it would resolve your starting spots a lot faster than Heat Races.

  2. Hey Nick – you’re right on with this article. I’m from the northeast and up here we have ALWAYS has heat racing as a method of qualifying for the modifieds. The only exception is the Whelen Modified Tour which (unfortunately) runs time trial qualifying.

    My suggestion:
    1) Divide the total number of cars entered by three and run 3 heat races run on Saturday (# of laps/miles determined by track size). Draw from hat for starting positions. Top 10 cars in each heat transfer to main (30 cars total). $50K to win each heat. Caution laps DO NOT COUNT, no advancing position on pit road during yellow.
    2) Remaining unqualified cars run a consolation race on Saturday with top 6 transfer and start in back of main. Caution laps DO NOT COUNT, no advancing position on pit road during yellow. $25K to win.
    3) Main event run on Sunday (36 cars qualified total – some cars WILL go home!), no more than 300 miles or laps depending on track size. Small fuel cells. Caution laps DO NOT COUNT, no advancing position on pit road under yellow. Mandatory green flag pit stop for 4 tires and fuel, fastest pit stop wins $100K for pit crew. Big purse for winner.

    This will do many things that will attract viewers; spread the action over two days/several events, make each event meaningful, remove “entitlement” racing (ALL drivers pretty much qualify today). TV commercials would be shown ONLY during caution flags, when there is no chance to advance position thus no action missed. Pit crews would shine during the main event with the mandatory green flag stop. Above all, a driver/team would have to RACE HARD on the track in order to win!

  3. Nick- Those are all great ideas. Na$car qualifying has been a snoozer forever compared to other forms of racing. I personally like the F1 knockout qualifying. Like you, I am glued to my seat. In F1, the qualifying session sometimes has more drama than the race itself. You could spice it up and give points as you suggested, 5-4-3-2-1 points to the top 5 qualifiers. Give the teams a little more incentive to go for it in qualifying in an era where qualifying really doesn’t mean much when every car makes the race with the exception of a start and park or two, and where a good team can routinely run from the back to the front anyway so starting position really doesn’t mean much either. You’d just have to adjust the current systems’s winner’s points awarded upward so that the car that wins the race is still going to get the max points awarded. You wouldn’t want to see a second place finisher possibly leave the race with more points than the winner due to the qualifying points.

    Or, you could do it World of Outlaws style and run an 8 lap “Dash” race to set the starting position for the top 10 cars after a traditional qualifying session. That would be fun at the short tracks.

  4. I like the idea of running heats. This could also solve the dilemma of Cup drivers running in Nationwide races. Have the heat races on Saturday, in place of Nationwide. Allow Nationwide to go to other markets those same weekends and expand the breadth of the sport.

    • That’s an interesting concept…then you’re taking care of two issues at once! I wouldn’t mind Cup guys in NNS if they ran for small teams instead of their Cup teams which basically makes them unbeatable but I unfortunately, never see that happening.

  5. The real problem with changing qualifying in Nascar is – it doesn’t matter.

    The reason the qualifying is so exciting in F1 or the others it MATTERS. If you qualify say 8 or worse in F1 your chance of winning is like the proverbial snowball in hades. But in Nascar? doesnt matter, start 43rd and you still have a shot, there will be enough cautions to let you get to the front.

    That in my opinion is the problem with Nascar qualifying.

    • That’s very true for all tracks a mile and bigger but throwing a few points in there would make it matter a lot more along with of course the incentive to get a good pit stall, gaining entry into the Sprint Unlimited and bragging rights.

  6. and if they went with your idea #3, all cars on the track at the same time, there would be a lot of wrecked race cars before the race. I agree that RP track qualifying in particular is boring, but I’m not interested in seeing more wrecks to “generate” excitement.

    • Gina, in those other forms of racing, where your qualifying position is very important, you probably see less wrecks than you do in Nascar.

      But how about this. Eliminate backup cars. These guys are supposed to be “the best drivers in the world”. All they have to do is act like it.

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