NASCAR changes make qualifying almost like another race

jutter@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 22, 2014 

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Changes to the qualifying procedures in NASCAR’s top three series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Trucks – will put multiple cars on the track at the same time, with eliminations trimming the field to the fastest cars.

KEVIN C. COX — Getty Images

Qualifying in NASCAR just became a knockout.

NASCAR on Wednesday officially unveiled its qualifying format changes for 2014, switching to a group “knockout” qualifying process in its three national series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck.

The premise of the new format – a version of which has been used in Formula One and the IndyCar Series – is elimination of slower cars until the 12 fastest are produced, which will comprise the first six rows of each race.

The change is a precursor to an expected announcement next week of even larger changes to NASCAR’s Chase playoff format, which will include elimination rounds. The Chase proposals were first reported Friday by the Observer.

Under the new qualifying procedures, NASCAR will use three rounds of qualifying at tracks 1.25 miles in length or larger. The entire field will have 25 minutes to post their fastest single lap and the top 24 will advance.

The second segment will last 10 minutes and the fastest 12 will advance to a final, five-minute round.

At tracks smaller than 1.25 miles, qualifying will be in two segments. The first will be 30 minutes with the top 12 advancing to a 10-minute final session.

“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,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition.

Nationwide and Truck teams will use the new format next month at Daytona, but the Cup series will retain its traditional qualifying format for the Daytona 500. The Truck series will retain its heat-race format for its annual stop at Eldora Speedway’s dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio. The first qualifying session of 2014 with the new format will be 1:05 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, with the Nationwide Series at Daytona International Speedway.

Although NASCAR considered the idea, it will not award points to pole winners.

Reaction from drivers and track operators was overwhelmingly positive.

“Heck, I’m all for anything that makes it fun not only the fans but the drivers and teams, too!” driver Clint Bowyer said in a statement. “This is really going shake things up on Fridays – in a good way. I’m all for it.”

With multiple cars on the track at the same time, qualifying sessions at shorter tracks such as Martinsville, Va., and Bristol, Tenn., and the superspeedways of Talladega, Ala., and Daytona – where drafting would be possible – could become almost mini-races.

“Bristol is known for intense, on-track battles, and this new format takes the emotion and energy in the qualifying sessions to another level,” said track general manager Jerry Caldwell. “It’s definitely going to be exciting for our race fans, and as the first short-track on the schedule, it will be interesting to see how it plays out on the high banks.”

Steve Letarte, crew chief for driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., posted the following note to his Twitter account:

“Man I think Fridays just got super exciting. Strategy. Speed. Competition. I’m ready.”

Pemberton said the qualifying changes would prove beneficial to all of those with a vested interest in the sport – fans, competitors and sponsors.

“We evaluate a lot of things over time, and we believe that the fans will be receptive to this. The competitors think it’s a great idea. It gives us an opportunity to get two or three rounds of qualifying in per event,” he said.

“I’ve got to believe it’s better for any of the sponsors. It’s going to be a better show for TV and the people at home will have a better opportunity to watch these guys qualify.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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