NASCAR

Qualifying overhaul offers interest boost

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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It’s time to give props to NASCAR for what they’ve done this season.

Fans complained about the racing. NASCAR acted, and so far, this season has been anything but boring.

Fans wanted double-file restarts. NASCAR delivered.

Fans wanted races to finish under green. Three attempts at a green-white-checkered-flag finish suggest the organizing body has made every effort to let fans see cars racing to a decision.

Now that we’re witnessing a kinder, gentler, more proactive NASCAR, what’s the next issue to be addressed? One that has been floating around for the last two years is a qualifying system based solely on speed.

POLL

  • Should NASCAR change qualifying?
    • Yes, qualify on speed only
    • Yes, but give top drivers a provisional
    • No, keep things as is

For the core fan, the anticipation of qualifying is something that’s been missing since NASCAR locked in the top 35 drivers and went to single-day qualifying.

So what better way to give the fans what they want and follow a “Back to basics approach” than by having drivers qualify for a race based on merit and the stopwatch, not their position in the owner points standings, past points, or because a competitor won a championship back in 1979?

More importantly, a revised system would add drama on Fridays that would carry over the weekend.

Remember when qualifying meant something? When there were two rounds of qualifying and fans would fill the stands on Saturday morning, stay for the companion Busch Series (now Nationwide Series) race and final practice afterward?

“The drama in qualifying has been reduced to whether Joe Nemechek or Max Papis goes home,” said broadcaster Doug Rice, the president and general manager of Performance Racing Network, the broadcast unit of Speedway Motorsports Inc. “For the vast majority of race fans, that’s not creating a lot of interest — with all due respect to Joe and Max.”

Rice says there were too few affiliates interested to justify the cost-effectiveness of producing the show. But if NASCAR switched to time-based qualifying for all drivers, “and a major player would not get in, that would put a huge amount of drama back into this.”

Of course, not everybody would be in favor of such added drama – such as the sponsors of a Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr., if their driver missed a race. In some cases, teams would be forced to rebate the investment.

Imagine Junior missing the Amp Energy 500 at Talladega. What if traditionally poor qualifiers such as Matt Kenseth or Jeff Burton were bumped from the field?

Jimmy Elledge is crew chief for Scott Speed, who was not in the top 35 when the season started. Now, the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota, which is arguably one of the best funded teams, is a real contender at 12th in the points standings. But Elledge knows what it’s like to be on pins and needles on Fridays. He remembers Speed getting blown off the track in Sonoma and being relegated to buying a ride from Joe Nemechek for the weekend.

Because of those experiences, Elledge is not an advocate of changing the system, although he would entertain running time trials with a system similar to Formula One qualifying.

“That’s all well and good in the argument for drama, but when it comes to adding value where the sponsor is concerned, if your car isn‘t in the show that could be disastrous,” Elledge said. “You’re flirting with the well being of the show if fans show up to see a Dale Jr. or a Tony Stewart and they’re not racing.”

On the “Owner Points” sheet that NASCAR distributes after races, a thick black line separates the top 35 drivers from the “go or go-homers.” Kevin Conway, Boris Said, Robby Gordon and Bill Elliott are among some of the racers below that line.

When Dave Blaney, who is currently 43rd in points, posted a top-five lap in California, it became newsworthy; here was a “start-and-park” team putting down a time comparable to Sprint Cup’s blue chippers. The qualifying performance also drew NASCAR’s attention when Blaney parked after only 43 laps.

Could the sanctioning body be weeding out the start-and-parkers in anticipation of a time when qualifying is actually based on speed? It’s one thing to send home a team that only intends running a handful of laps. It’s a whole ’nother deal for a team that intends to run a complete race, such as rookie of the year candidate Terry Cook or the popular Casey Mears, who has yet to run a lap of a points-paying race.

So if NASCAR adopts a meritocracy for qualifying, it should include teams intending to go the full distance. Another angle officials would have to consider is whether positions were transferable. Also, would Chase drivers be locked in for the final 10 races? There should be a proviso for that.

In NASCAR’s quest to be the most fan-friendly sport, qualifying needs to be meaningful again.
Tagged: Scott Speed, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek, Robby Gordon, Boris Said, Max Papis, Scott Speed

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