It’s increasingly difficult to find anyone who enjoys NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series qualifying system.
Long on guarantees for top drivers and short on actual qualifying, NASCAR’s Friday afternoon time trial sessions have become as exciting to watch as Grandma rearranging her spice rack. The vast majority of drivers and teams arrive at the speedway each week “pre-qualified” by virtue of being in the Top-35 in owner points. It’s a cushy deal for the teams, but dull as dishwater for fans, most of whom know days in advance that their favorite driver will race in Sunday’s 500-miler. “Qualifying Day” has been neutered like the family dog, and now amounts to little more than “Arranging Day.”
NASCAR’s current, owner points-based system was designed to ensure that no big-name driver is left on the sidelines when the green flag flies on Sunday afternoon. Many fans pinch pennies for months to afford their annual Sprint Cup outing, and the last thing they want when arriving at the track is to discover that their favorite driver failed to qualify and will not be competing this week.
That’s an understandable concern, and it’s easily addressed. Fans deserve a better, more exciting qualifying experience that gives top-name drivers every opportunity to race on Sunday . Here’s how to make it happen…
STEP ONE: Abolish the Top-35. Without it, every team arrives at the race track in survival mode, tasked with laying down a fast qualifying lap to ensure their participation in Sunday’s main event. No more 35-man lock-in, no more Past Champion’s Provisionals for drivers a decade or more past their prime. Go fast, or go home.
STEP TWO: Real, meaningful time trials. Every driver gets his traditional two laps on the clock. When time-trials are complete, the fastest 35 drivers are in the race; regardless of who they are, who they drive for, or where they finished in points last season. If unheralded newcomer Ed Shlabotnik builds a scorching fast race car in his two-bay garage – and it passes NASCAR’s pre-qualifying inspection – he’s allowed to out-qualify Smoke, Jimmie and the boys and start on the pole for Sunday’s race. Qualifying for a race on speed is admittedly a radical concept these days, but the idea would infuse a much-needed element of unpredictability to the process and help repopulate NASCAR’s increasingly empty grandstands on qualifying day.
STEP THREE: Add the top-point drivers. After the first 35 positions have been set via time trials, NASCAR fills the next seven spots based on current championship driver points. Simply put, the top seven drivers in points who failed to make the field on speed are added to the lineup, in order of standing. This virtually guarantees that no big-name driver is left at the altar.
STEP FOUR: Add last week’s winner. If he fails to qualify by all other means, last week’s race-winning driver is added to the field as the 43rd and final starter. If last week’s winner has already made the field, an eighth driver is added to the field according to driver championship points.
It’s simple, it’s exciting and it’s fair. NASCAR, your thoughts?