FONTANA, Calif. — So what next?
What is NASCAR to do to fix a “mockery” of qualifying – a series executive’s comment — after all 12 Cup drivers in the final round waited too long to get on track Friday and failed to complete a lap before time expired?
The suggestions flow. Go back to single-car qualifying. Heat races. Make cars that don’t complete a lap in the final round start at the rear. Have group qualifying for two rounds but make the final round single-car qualifying. Send cars out at timed intervals.
Before NASCAR can set a course, other questions must be asked.
The first question is what’s more important for NASCAR? Is this about entertainment or competition?
Entertainment is critical to a sport that seeks to rebuild its fan base. Close racing, drama and excitement can energize a fans attract new ones.
The past three weeks of Cup qualifying has been appointment viewing. There was the unknown of what would happen at Las Vegas with the rules package, the fight between Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell at ISM Raceway and then what would happen Friday at Auto Club Speedway. When is the last time there has been so much interest in qualifying for three consecutive races?
But is that interest based on too many gimmicks?
When NASCAR announced its rule changes in early February, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told the media: “Our core goal in everything we do is to deliver the best possible racing for our fans.”
O’Donnell also said that day that “the stars of NASCAR have always been the drivers and the cars. We want to make sure that is the emphasis in any rules package we put forth.”
But there appears to be a limit. In discussing the group qualifying model in that same meeting, Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, said: “One thing that we realize and everybody in this room realizes is that we’re in show business.”
After Friday’s episode in the last round of qualifying, Miller said that while changes will be made to the format, “we really don’t want to go back to single-car qualifying. There may not be another way. We want to exhaust every possibility before we do that because that’s not as fun, not as intriguing of a show as the group situation.”
Drivers and teams are frustrated. They feel they have less control in the group qualifying format. Some would suggest that there’s too much randomness to how the starting lineup is set. It’s more about getting the right draft at tracks 1.5 miles and larger than having a car with the most speed on its own.
“I told you all back in Vegas that I am still a big fan of single-car qualifying,” Ryan Newman, told NBC Sports after being among those who failed to complete a lap in the final round Friday. “That is all I need to say, really. That is the way qualifying should be.”
Said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch: “The last car has the biggest advantage and you’re a buffoon to go out and be the first car.”
Beyond the entertainment/competition question, other questions must be asked: What is the role of the sanctioning body? Should it be about penalizing infractions or creating opportunities for competitors to excel?
At Las Vegas, David Ragan started sixth for Front Row Motorsports. The organization had two top-10 starts last year (Bristol and Daytona) but none at a 1.5-mile track. The group qualifying format helped created an opportunity for that organization to attain a strong starting spot.
Without such chances might that team have qualified as high? Is it fair to do away with such opportunities for that and other teams?
“It’s hard to control every single thing in our sport,” Ragan told NBC Sports. “There needs to be a little bit of randomness. That makes things creative.”
But Ragan also noted that “we need to keep the integrity of the sport.”
So should NASCAR create a rule — another rule to anger those who say the rule book has too many entries — that penalizes teams for not completing a lap in the final round and make them start at the back? Or is there another way to deal with this situation before teams arrive in Texas in two weeks?
Those are among the questions NASCAR must answer before deciding what changes to make to qualifying.