group qualifying

NASCAR might return to single-car qualifying on drafting tracks

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After another controversial group qualifying session on a drafting-style track, NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said a return to single-car qualifying is being considered.

“We’re going to look at every option, including the possibility of going to single-car qualifying,” O’Donnell said in his weekly Monday interview on SiriusXM NASCAR’s “The Morning Drive” program. “The reason we haven’t is that’s on the teams. That’s parts and pieces. We’ve tried to be as efficient as possible trying this method of (group) qualifying.

“But we’re definitely going to look at it and see what we can do. We’ve got a couple of weeks to do that. We’ll make adjustments as needed.”

A NASCAR spokesman said discussions of any potential changes have yet to occur. A move to single-car qualifying likely would happen only on drafting tracks. Group qualifying has worked at short tracks such as Bristol Motor Speedway (site of Sunday’s race) where drafting doesn’t happen.

The next track at which group qualifying could be problematic is Kansas Speedway, which will play host May 11 to the Cup Series. NASCAR already has been using single-car qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway (site of the April 28 race) for a few years.

When the lower-horsepower 2019 rules package created more drafting at larger speedways aside from Talladega and Daytona International Speedway, there was speculation that NASCAR would tweak group qualifying (which made its debut five years ago) at those tracks.

But citing the need for “show business” in qualifying, officials have resisted calls for change this season despite debacles at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway (where there were no recorded speeds in the final round) and most recently last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Despite new rules to incentivize teams, the Friday session still resulted in controversy.

Clint Bowyer was particularly upset with NASCAR after feeling he was blocked in by Ryan Newman during the session. Bowyer playfully chided officials about it after finishing second Sunday at Texas.

Drivers have spent nearly the entire final round of each session waiting idle in the pits because the first car to leave is at a disadvantage without a drafting partner (though Daniel Suarez qualified fourth as a single car at Texas).

The strategy results in long periods of inactivity during qualifying.

“It’s really unfortunate for the fans,” O’Donnell said Monday. “It’s miraculous that Daniel Suarez is able to make a lap on his own and qualify fourth, so I don’t know how that’s possible based on all the data the teams seem to be putting together to sit on the end of pit road and wait.

“I think the one clarification on our end, we instructed (Newman) to move. He did that. I think Clint Bowyer could have gotten out and gotten past (Newman), but regardless of that, the optics of what is taking place with the teams is not tenable for us with the fans.”

Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick weighed in with a suggestion Monday morning.

O’Donnell replied “absolutely” when asked whether he was angered by the incessant controversy and openly wondered whether drivers were trying to subvert the process.

“I think it’s ridiculous, candidly,” he said. “I know the drivers did not like this qualifying before the season. Part of you says, ‘Are we doing this on purpose to get rid of it?’ I know it can be done. I know we have the best drivers in the world and crew chiefs to figure it out. We seem to want to outdo each other, and that results in sitting on pit road.

“We’ll react to it. We’ll make the right call and get it right. We don’t want to see cars sitting on pit road for 8 minutes. That’s not NASCAR racing. We’ll make the fix there.”

O’Donnell said any switch would be met by resistance from team owners who lobbied for group qualifying to help hold down costs. A move to single-car qualifying would mean teams focusing on more expensive and specialized parts and pieces.

“If we have to go back to single car, simple,” he said. “We’ll do that. It won’t be popular with some of the owners, but unfortunately, we’re getting put in this position.”

In an interview 45 minutes later on “The Morning Drive”, crew chief Todd Gordon said he liked the current system of group qualifying on drafting tracks, suggesting it needed better elucidation.

“The problem is we’re not explaining what the strategies are, what the pieces are,” said Gordon, the crew chief for Joey Logano. “I like it. If the fan base or NASCAR doesn’t like it, we’ll adapt to what’s next.”

Sitting idle for long stretches during qualifying is just part of the strategy, Gordon said.

“It’s not that we’re doing something deviant,” he said. “We’re doing something that’s been laid out by NASCAR. … That’s the biggest problem. We haven’t done a good job to explain to our fan base, our TV partners, our radio partners what’s going on and what the strategy is and what the rules are.

“There’s a structure here, and we maximize our opportunity as it unfolds.”