Ryan: Dumping the Duels can return drama to Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Here is the long and short of how to address the conundrum hanging over this Speedweeks with the pall of a parade for past glory never to be recaptured.

Expand the racing. And shrink the field.

Entering the 60th edition of the Daytona 500, NASCAR has reached a crossroads with the qualifying races for the Great American Race that were once billed as “the largest weekday sporting event in America.”

In the halcyon days of what were known as the Twin 125s, there were few days during the NASCAR season that were packed with as much drama as setting the Daytona 500 field. Traffic was so congested for the 1 p.m. start, you had to arrive six hours early to beat it, and nearby schools made the second Thursday in February a holiday because buses couldn’t run on schedule.

Across the country, fans snuck transistor radios into their office cubicles to listen surreptitiously to races that lost none of their luster despite being shown on tape delay.

Naturally, there was a voracious appetite for an event that consistently delivered inspiring stories of triumph, a healthy dose of sobering heartache and a doubleheader sneak preview of the Daytona 500.

Unfortunately, the underdog storylines that once made Daytona qualifiers special are gone, disappearing into the cash-strapped ether that has crippled once larger fields in many forms of auto racing.

Only 40 cars showed up for the 40 spots in Sunday’s race, and even that seemed in doubt until BK Racing’s perpetual legal problems were put on a temporary hold a few hours ahead of Thursday night’s first green flag.

When a Chapter 11 filing is greeted as good news for The Great American Race avoiding a black eye, it’s time to reconsider the wisdom of making the Daytona 500 work in the charter era.

Since purses were restructured two years ago, the four “open” spots hardly are incentivized to make just qualifying for Daytona worthwhile anymore. As Kevin Harvick said this week, why not just limit fields to the 36 chartered cars?

But it’s also time to revamp the Duels, which can’t be retrofitted to produce the drama inherent from the days when 50-plus cars regularly showed up to fill 43 spots.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been through this with its crown jewel. Bump Day, once a nail-biting test of nerves with nonstop plot twists, essentially died an ignominious death many years ago when sponsorship dried up enough at the Brickyard.

But the speedway found a way to restore some glory in 2010 with the introduction of the Fast Nine and enhanced it in 2014 by moving it to the last hour Sunday, supplanting the spectacle of completing the field of 33 with a pressure-packed run for the pole position.

Daytona qualifying is no equal for the breathtakingly Herculean task of four laps at Indy, so there is no direct parallel but a similar solution.

Shift the focus.

Dump pole qualifying at Daytona, which always has been more of a PR exercise with little bearing on the race. Make starting positions (which, admittedly, still won’t matter much) dependent on the results of heat races spread over several days of continuous racing leading into Daytona.

Put up points, post a megabonus for winning multiple races … surely, there are ways to improve on the current attraction.

Thursday’s Duels – the first time cars were on track since Sunday — underscored there increasingly has been too much dead time added to the Daytona schedule.

Make Speedweeks into a Speedweek: Start Sunday with The Clash and run nonstop daily through the 500. Sprinkle in more daytime starts to mimic the racing conditions for the 500 and reignite some missing buzz (there are signs that already has worked with The Clash’s move under the sun).

This will benefit the racing as well (while obviously taxing crews, cars and engines, too — again, more drama).

Thursday night’s two races were only the second test of a new rules package, leaving many drivers spooked about rear suspension instability at 200 mph. With hardly any practice time, it was understandable that some (notably pole-sitter Alex Bowman, whose No. 88 Chevrolet was set up for qualifying speed instead of racing handling) decided discretion was the better part of valor.

Keeping cars racing daily in the draft will 1) give drivers the time to get acclimated to handling conditions; 2) give NASCAR a larger sample size to evaluate aero and engine specs and make aerodynamic improvements if necessary.

Yes, these are fairly radical changes for the most storied event in NASCAR, and history and tradition are taken seriously at the World Center of Racing.

So is drama, though. And in their current format, the Duels no longer can deliver it.