NASCAR announced a radical shakeup to its traditional qualifying format last week, in an effort to inject some much-needed excitement into what had become a snooze-inducing exercise that gave fans no reason to watch – or even care – about the outcome.
The sanctioning body’s old reliable (and mind-numbingly dull) single-car time trial format will be replaced by new, Formula One-style “knockout qualifying” sessions in 2014, a format that will place multiple cars on the track at one time and eliminate drivers from pole contention over the course of multiple, timed sessions.
The new system offers multiple improvements over what fans have traditionally experienced on Qualifying Day.
First, qualifying will now be completed in approximately one hour; far less than the three-hour slumberfests that have traditionally plagued the sport at tracks like Daytona, Talladega and Pocono. In an era of microwave meals and instant gratification, fans are no longer willing to devote three hours of their lives to a single-car parade of solo laps that seldom includes even a smattering of drama, excitement or surprise. They will benefit from an abbreviated, one-hour qualifying window, as will the sport’s television and radio partners.
Second is the return of actual strategy to the qualifying format, for the first time in decades. With only one set of tires to work with and chassis adjustments allowed only during a brief, five-minute break between sessions, teams will be forced to adapt to changing track, traffic and car conditions on the fly. Ideally, two fast laps with a fully-taped front grille will be the order of the day. But a track clogged with racers on similar (or completely different) game plans could make those “two quick laps” tough to come by, forcing teams to change plans, alter set-ups and put additional, unwanted laps on their tires.
Teams will be allowed to take to the track as many times as they want, any time they want within a particular session. Variations in strategy are almost certain to result. Should I go out early in the round, or wait to see what other drivers do? Should I stand on a mediocre lap time and risk being bumped in the final minute, or go back out in search of a better lap?
Those decisions create drama, and the fans are sure to benefit.
At tracks where drafting comes into play, teamwork will play an important new role in qualifying. Drivers will attempt to seek-out teammates to draft with, but teammates aren’t easy to find on a crowded racetrack. There’s also nothing stopping an outsider from hitching a ride on your back bumper and messing up your well-crafted plan. And even if you’re able to organize a beneficial draft down the Talladega backstretch, a savvy adversary can toss an ill-timed side draft your way and kill the entire lap in a heartbeat.
When’s the last time you saw someone get punched in the mouth during time trials? When’s the last time teams had to roll out the backup car following a multi-car qualifying wreck?
Never, that’s when. But this year, it just might happen.
"I'm all for anything that makes it fun,” said Clint Bowyer last week. “Not only for the fans, but the drivers and the teams, too. This is really going to shake things up on Fridays."
"I think (strategy) is part of the fun of it," said Keith Rodden, Jamie McMurray’s new crew chief at Chip Ganassi Racing. "I can see it changing with each session and each weekend, especially at first."
Effective immediately, qualifying on the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series’ will include a healthy dose of drama, intrigue, entertainment and excitement. And for the first time in years, fans will have a reason to leave work early and come out to the track.
That’s a good thing, no matter how you slice it.