Commentary

NASCAR qualifying gets a kick-start

Updated: January 22, 2014, 10:36 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Why not?

What could it possibly hurt, abandoning NASCAR's equivalent of watching paint dry and grass grow, the long-archaic one-car qualifying format? It couldn't possibly be any more boring, or irrelevant to how a given race will actually unfold, than it has been in recent years.

[+] EnlargeRobin Pemberton
Jerry Markland/NASCAR/Getty ImagesRobin Pemberton on NASCAR's new qualifying format: "This style of group qualifying has all the makings of being highly competitive and more engaging to our fans in the stands and those watching on television and online."

So knockout qualifying -- that is, in group sessions -- cannot possibly hurt. And it very well might help as the format evolves this season and beyond. NASCAR made the long-anticipated announcement on Wednesday. Finally!

My overriding complaint about one-car qualifying, for decades now, has been that it rarely indicates how a car will actually perform in race conditions. How many times have you seen a pole winner drop like a rock back through the field once the scramble of the race itself begins?

Knockout qualifying will be something of a scramble early on, and then evolve into more of a scramble as teams adjust to the format.

At the very least, it will simulate race conditions and give at least an inkling about how a car will do in the race.

No doubt this will be a lot more fun -- IndyCar road races and Formula One already have had great success with knockout sessions -- and it will be a bigger draw for TV audiences, and actually might put some people in the grandstands at the tracks.

So, sure, it's a gimmick in a way. NASCAR, like all other sports leagues, has every right to woo more spectators with better entertainment.

But I'm going beyond that. I'm thinking more of the practicality of it. By making qualifying more entertaining, NASCAR is also making qualifying more relevant.

We won't get to see it for the Daytona 500 in February -- God forbid NASCAR should tamper with the also-anachronistic gimmick of twin qualifying races for its showcase event -- or for the Trucks race on dirt at Eldora.

Everywhere else, we'll see a whole new kind of endeavor evolve, with three timed group sessions at tracks of more than 1.25 miles in length, and two sessions at the shorter tracks. In each round, the slower cars will be eliminated from pole competition.


For decades, we've heard drivers and crew chiefs say after early practice sessions that they decided to use their time either on a qualifying setup or a race setup. That's always seemed to me a waste of time, one way or the other.

So I asked Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition and racing development -- and this truly IS a racing development -- whether there might be a narrowing, if not a melding, of the choices of setups during practice, so that teams don't have to decide whether to go one way or the other.

"It's hard to say," Pemberton, a former crew chief, replied. "There are some racetracks [where] a qualifying setup could mean more or less than others . . . I would say if you're trying to run three sessions [at the larger tracks], the potential is that you may have closer to a racing setup. But it remains to be seen what approach the teams will take."

But on at least some tracks, Pemberton said, "it will simulate more of a race condition."

And that is a very good thing -- an indicator, a preview of the race.

I've already seen complaints from some fans that, for example, drafting will be allowed in qualifying at tracks where the draft comes into play.

But that's great, if you ask me. Drafting at, say, Talladega, is very much a part of racing conditions, so why not make it part of qualifying conditions? One-car qualifying at a restrictor-plate track is so irrelevant to the race itself that -- well, Tony Stewart has threatened for years to put me in his car to qualify for a plate race, saying I'd do just as well as he, because all you have to do is hold on and floor the already-stifled throttle.

Pemberton says NASCAR will police blocking, but blocking is also part of race conditions, policed or not.

The whole notion of time trials, begun more than a century ago, was to determine which cars were capable of running up front, and which cars should be started at the back to keep them out of the way of the serious contenders.

But at least 40 years ago, one-car qualifying began fading as any such indicator, what with special qualifying setups and  for many years, special qualifying tires and engines that were not even allowed in the races themselves.

Qualifying became a separate, irrelevant entity unto itself.

Now, we'll get a better idea of who is capable of running up front and who isn't.

Not only that, but we'll get either three or two little quasi-races on qualifying day -- something that will draw closer attention than the single cars droning on and on and on around the tracks ad nauseam, while you sit and stare at the scoring monitor as the only indication of who is fastest.

So why not?

If you're that much of a traditionalist and cling to one-car qualifying, then there's always paint for you to watch dry and grass to watch grow. At the very least, the knockout format will separate NASCAR qualifying from these other two spectator events.

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