NASCAR returns to single-car qualifying for Cup, Xfinity & Trucks

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NASCAR will go back to single-car, single-round qualifying for all three of its national series at all race tracks except road courses. This begins this weekend at Dover International Speedway.

At oval tracks measuring 1.25 miles in length or less, qualifying will consist of two timed laps. At oval tracks measuring more than 1.25 miles in length, qualifying will consist of one timed lap. The group qualifying format will remain in place at road courses.

“We talked about a whole lot of other things but nothing really jumped out as something that would work for us over the long haul except this,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said Wednesday of the changes.

“Group qualifying worked at some tracks. There’s no question about it, but to be consistent … this is where we landed, this is what will work in our eyes everywhere.”

Asked why NASCAR didn’t go to a single-car qualifying format when it made changes to the car this year that encouraged drafting, Miller said: “We obviously want to put on the best show that we can. We thought that had potential. That’s why we gave it a go.

“Obviously, it didn’t work out like we thought it would. We’re in the business of trying to put on great racing and a good show at the same time. We will adjust and do what we feel like we need to do whenever we feel like we’re not delivering as much as we should be.”

The qualifying order draw will be determined by the previous race’s starting lineup. For example, in Cup, the top 20 starters from the previous race will draw to take their qualifying lap in positions 21-40 (the second half of qualifying). The remainder of the cars will draw to qualify in positions 1-20.

“To make a compelling show, we need to make sure that a car that stands a chance to win the pole is actually the last car out,” Miller said. “We think that typically that everybody that qualifies in the top 20 at an event, stands a chance of sitting on the pole at a subsequent event.”

Other than at road courses, Wednesday’s announcement ends group qualifying, which was introduced in 2014.

The first series to use this format for qualifying will be the Gander Outdoors Truck Series. That series has qualifying at 1:10 p.m. ET Friday at Dover. Cup qualifying is scheduled for 3:40 p.m. ET Friday at Dover. Xfinity qualifying is scheduled for 10:10 a.m. ET Saturday at Dover.

Miller said that officials expect qualifying to be completed in an hour. He said there could be some places where there will be two cars on track to speed the process. In those cases, a car could take off from pit road as the car on track completes its first lap. Miller also said that there will be three breaks, lasting two minutes each, to allow TV to go to commercial so fans watching will not miss any of the qualifying.

The change comes as qualifying has been plagued with complaints from drivers, fans and series officials this season.

Drivers said they warned series officials before the season what could happen in the group qualifying format with the draft so important at some tracks. No one would want to go first. 

The result was cars sitting on pit road for much of a round waiting for someone to go out. No cars completed a lap before the final round ended on March 15 at Auto Club Speedway, giving Austin Dillon the pole since he had been the fastest in the second round. Miller said that day that what happened had made a “mockery out of the qualifying.”

Miller said then that “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.”

NASCAR responded by keeping the group format but increasing penalties for failing to complete a lap in a round.

NASCAR stated that competitors who did not start a timed lap before the clock expired due to “excessive waiting” would have their qualifying times from earlier sessions disallowed and start at the rear. Previously, if a car failed to complete a lap before time expired, it started behind all the cars in that particular round.

If NASCAR determined that a competitor blocked or impeded another vehicle from taking off properly or blocked on the track, that competitor would have their posted qualifying times disallowed from the earlier sessions and start at the rear.

The changes didn’t stop most teams from waiting until the end of a round to make a lap March 29 at Texas. More complaints from drivers followed.

“I guess this is a make-up-the-rules-as-we-go event in qualifying,” Clint Bowyer said. “It’s sad. Those people up (in the stands) there paid a lot of money to bring their families here and watch a qualifying sessions and people try to go out and do their best. You’re just sitting around (on pit road) and waiting because you only know your best is good enough if the guy in front of you does a good job. That’s not qualifying.”

Jay Fabian, Cup managing series director, said that day that series officials would look at all options.

“We’re obviously disappointed with what happened,” Fabian said. “We’re disappointed with what we saw. Nobody deserves to see that. Our fans don’t deserve it. We’re going to take whatever steps we have to to clean it up so we don’t have this problem again. Pretty much everything is on the table as far as what we’ll do moving forward.”

NASCAR made another change to qualifying for Richmond only. The first two rounds were each cut to five minutes, matching the final round. Car owner Tony Stewart complained April 12 about what NASCAR was doing with qualifying.

“They make one bad decision and then they compound it by having to make three more bad decisions to try to make up for the first bad decision they made,” Stewart said.