NASCAR finds itself with its head in a vice again this week, in the aftermath of a group qualifying session last Sunday that was simultaneously exhilarating and exasperating.
Jeff Gordon claimed the Daytona 500 pole with a fast lap at 201.293, followed closely by Hendrick Motorsports teammate and outside-pole qualifier Jimmie Johnson. On most days, the final Daytona 500 qualifying effort of Gordon’s illustrious career would have stolen all the headlines.
Sunday, however, it was reduced to sidebar status by an on-track crash involving Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer that unleashed a torrent of criticism on NASCAR and its new group qualifying format.
Admittedly, there was plenty to dislike in Sunday’s group qualifying session. The event featured as much waiting as actual racing, with drivers repeatedly backing onto pit road and sitting idle while the clock ticked away, awaiting the arrival of the proper teammates to execute their drafting plan. The lowlight of the session came when Reed Sorenson threw an ill-advised block on Bowyer and Justin Allgaier, triggering a multi-car crash that was immediately blamed on… the sanctioning body.
"It ain't (Sorenson’s) fault," said Bowyer, just moments after demolishing his second Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota in as many days. "It's NASCAR's fault for putting us out in the middle of this crap for nothing.
"There's no reason to be putting on a show, trying to make something out of nothing that doesn't need to be," he said. "These cars are just destroyed, for no reason.”
As a result of all that unhappiness, NASCAR finds itself faced with a series of multi-billion dollar questions today, for which there may be no correct answers.
Unfortunately, what’s best for drivers and teams is absolutely wrong for fans and broadcast partners. FOX and NBC will spend $8.2 billion to broadcast NASCAR racing over the next 10 years, and they want drama for their dollar. Group qualifying features all the drafting, strategy, drama and intrigue that make the Daytona 500 itself so captivating, and is infinitely more entertaining than 2.5 hours of mindless, solo circling.
There is an associated risk, of course. Wrecked race cars, the potential for driver injury and the ensuing torrent of negative, post-qualifying commentary can’t possibly be what NASCAR had in mind.
“If it’s better for the fans, then it’s definitely good for all of us,” admitted Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards Sunday. “(This system) creates some storylines. It definitely stirs things up. In some ways, it might be more entertaining. But it is a heck of a way to qualify for the biggest race of the year, because there’s so much chance for a problem or something keeping you out of the race.”
So what is a sanctioning body to do?
|NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell|
Here in NASCAR Nation, our memories are mercifully short. We forget the days of single car qualifying at Daytona and Talladega; 2.5-hour Sominex commercials that did little more than set the field for the more volatile (and exciting) Budweiser Duel heat races to come. We also forget the day at Talladega Superspeedway when drivers – faced with a 100% guarantee of rain on qualifying day -- went all out in a thrilling, mass-melee final practice, knowing that the fastest lap would yield a pole-position start on Sunday.
Drivers bubbled over with excitement that day. Fans were effusive in their praise, asking, “Why can’t we do this all the time?”
NASCAR listened, and now, they’re paying the price.
The allegation of “unfairness” from some quarters is also unfounded. Group qualifying may have been unfortunate for Bowyer and company, but it was not unfair. Just as they will in Sunday’s Daytona 500, each team had an opportunity to devise and implement its own qualifying strategy. Each driver chose when to join the fray, who to draft with, who to block and when to make his move in search of a fast qualifying lap.
Every driver had an equal opportunity to succeed Sunday. Some made more of that opportunity than others.
The outcry over wrecked race cars also seems a bit disingenuous. Drivers have risked life, limb and equipment in the Budweiser Duels for nearly 60 years, without significant complaint. Wrecking in group time trials is no worse than wrecking in a heat race, and absolutely no riskier.
“We were bitching then, and we’re bitching now,” said six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson with a grin Sunday. “It must be racing.
“At some point in time, in order to grow the sport, somebody has to be unhappy. Hopefully we can look at facts and stats and say, ‘Yes, this is better and it is worth the five cars we (wrecked).’ If it didn’t move the needle, then we should try to rethink things.”
Perhaps one day, NASCAR will learn how to serve multiple masters, allowing everyone to achieve their goals while remaining both happy and safe.
Sadly, Sunday was not that day.