Ryan: An imperfect day for NASCAR still was an improvement

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Three-time champion Tony Stewart called it a “complete embarrassment.”

Defending Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick lamented “it sucks 56 years of tradition at Daytona where fast cars ruled had ended.”

Clint Bowyer labeled it a “cute show” that was “crap.”

The debut of group qualifying for the Daytona 500 was a debacle just short of concocting the Car of Tomorrow and moving the Southern 500’s Labor Day weekend date to Southern California, right?

Well, maybe until it’s compared with the derision met by single-car qualifying as the most facile and mundane exercise in NASCAR.

“We’re bitching then, and we’re bitching now, aren’t we?” six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson said with a laugh. “Must be racing.”

Of the myriad takeaways from one of the more bizarre and Byzantine days in the annals of Daytona International Speedway – where Jeff Gordon’s storybook pole position for his final Daytona 500 got overshadowed by a chorus of complaints from unhappy Sprint Cup stars – the most important conclusion was that it was unavoidable someone would be unhappy.

It’s undeniable that NASCAR bungled integral parts in the execution of the new format – even though there were blaring warning signs in the previous restrictor-plate qualifying session at Talladega Superspeedway last fall.

It’s also indisputable there was more drama than ever in 57 years of determining which car will lead the field to green for the Great American Race.

That drama wasn’t all positive, particularly for Bowyer, who faces the prospect of racing his way into the season’s biggest race in a backup car.

But this is an inversely proportional axiom that has existed in racing for long before the first car turned a lap on the nearby beach.

What’s good for fans is often bad for drivers – and vice-versa.

Under the old system of single-car qualifying, there was little risk to car or driver. There also was little incentive to watch.

While extremely flawed at points, Sunday’s show was at least captivating to watch the fraying of competitors’ nerves (even Gordon admitted to being anxious despite being locked into the field).

Everything was extremely stressful,” said Joe Gibbs Racing’s Carl Edwards, one of 13 drivers who are locked into the Daytona 500 field. “If it is better for the show, if it’s better for the fans, then it’s definitely good for all of us. But this is a heck of a way to qualify for the biggest race of the year, because there’s so much chance for a problem or something keeping you out of the race.

“I guess it remains to be seen what the best way to do this is. For the competitors, the best (way) is to do single‑car runs and see who built the best car. But this makes it a little more chaotic. Probably creates some storylines. Definitely stirs things up. In some ways, it might be more entertaining.”

In some ways, Sunday’s session became a charade that was too chaotic and too entertaining, and much of it could have been avoided.

After a chorus of howls about a similarly confusing and contentious qualifying round at Talladega Superspeedway last October, NASCAR promised to solicit feedback and make improvements. Chief Racing Development Officer and Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said “minor adjustments” were made on pit road and to limit blocking.

Given that Bowyer’s crash happened because of a block thrown by Reed Sorenson, the changes didn’t work.

“We don’t want to see wrecks,” O’Donnell said. “If there’s a way to avoid that, we’ll take a look at all of those things and see what we can do to make adjustments.”

NASCAR shouldn’t stop there.

Having a group of world-class drivers idling in their cars for nearly 5 minutes playing an absurd game of chicken also needs tweaking.

But there is a limit to the criticism NASCAR can bear for simply trying to improve a flawed system – single-car qualifying – that everyone agreed was lackluster.

Regardless of the prestige associated with Daytona, single-car qualifying can’t be held up as a sacred cow solely because it skirted controversy and kept teams happy. As Brad Keselowski tweeted, returning to the old format isn’t an option.

Group qualifying might not be the answer, either. If NASCAR’s audience metrics don’t indicate a jolt (and there were vast swaths of empty grandstands Sunday), it should consider eradicating Daytona 500 pole qualifying and setting the field strictly through heat races.

“It’s tough because everybody’s trying to keep an open mind on what’s best for the sport, what creates the most interest,” Johnson said. “I guess maybe we should look at viewership numbers and attendance numbers to see if this format supports the risks that the teams are taking, drivers are taking in the cars.

“At some point in time in order to grow the sport, somebody has to be unhappy. Hopefully we can look at facts and stats and say, ‘Yes, this is better and it is worth the five cars we (crashed).’ If it didn’t move the needle, then we should try to rethink things.”

Johnson said it also was important to consider the impetus for group qualifying – when the guarantee of a qualifying rainout at Talladega a few years ago prompted drivers to race hell bent for leather during a practice session that would set the field by speeds.

“Everybody loved that,” he said. “Then group qualifying came into play. Now we’re having second thoughts. I don’t know how we keep everybody happy.”

The answer is you can’t, nor should you care if you do.

NASCAR’s goal should be the implementing the fairest and most entertaining qualifying show for the crown jewel of its premier circuit.

It didn’t get there Sunday.

But at least it got somewhere.