Before drivers can race, they need to qualify. While qualifying has generally been a pretty straightforward affair throughout history, some rules complicate how NASCAR sets its lineup for races. Here is a look at how qualifying for a NASCAR race works.
- For this list, we will look at all three National Touring Series. Each series has slightly different rules regarding how to qualify for their races, so we will break all of those down.
- While each series qualifying rules vary slightly, the qualifying sessions work the same across all three series. However, procedures for each session vary by track type.
- While not every fan tunes into qualifying on a race weekend, many fans do. It’s an opportunity to see who the fastest drivers are and which cars will be tough to beat come race day.
How Does a Qualifying Session Work?
A NASCAR qualifying session will vary slightly between different track types, and there are three different procedures. There’s superspeedway qualifying, speedway/short oval qualifying, and road course qualifying. We will break down all three.
Speedway/Short Oval Qualifying
For the vast majority of race tracks, including speedway ovals and short ovals, qualifying includes two groups and two rounds. In round 1, Group A goes first, and each driver is sent out in order to set a fast time with Group B to follow. For ovals more than 1.0 miles in length, each driver gets one timed lap, and for ovals 1.0 miles in length or less, drivers get two laps, with the fastest lap being their qualifying time.
After round 1, the top 5 drivers in Group A and Group B move on to the 2nd round to determine the pole winner. Every other driver locks in their starting spot for the race on Sunday. For 2024, in the Cup Series at least, Group A will determine the outside row and Group B the inside for positions 11th on the back. It’s unclear whether this rule will either transfer to Xfinity or Trucks or they will line Group A and B up based on qualifying speeds regardless of group.
In Round 2, the 5 fastest drivers of Group A and the 5 fastest drivers of Group B go out to set another fastest lap, just like in Round 1. The driver’s fastest laps are compiled, and that sets Positions 1-10. The fastest driver in Round 2 wins the pole position.
For drafting-style superspeedways at Daytona, Talladega, and Atlanta, Qualifying is still two rounds, but groups are eliminated. Each driver is sent out for one timed lap, and the 10 fastest move on to Round 2. The other drivers fill out the other starting positions from 11th on back.
Just like on speedway ovals, Round 2 features the top 10 from Round 1, and each sets one timed lap. Each driver’s lap is ranked from 1st to 10th, and the fastest driver wins the pole.
The Daytona 500 is slightly different in its procedure. It has a qualifying session that functions just like a normal qualifying session, but, only the top two have their starting spots locked in. The rest of the field gets their starting spots determined by 150-mile, 60-lap Duel races held on the Thursday night before the Daytona 500.
Road Course qualifying functions similarly to speedway oval and short oval qualifying except the session is timed. Instead of each driver being sent out one at a time to set a fast lap, each group gets a 15-minute session to go out and set a fast lap running as many laps as they want to. The fastest lap a driver sets at any time during the session is their qualifying time.
The top 5 in each group move on, and the rest fill out the rest of the field with Group A on the outside and Group B on the inside just like speedways and short ovals. The 2nd Round lasts 10 minutes, and each driver’s fastest lap is their time. Each driver is ranked 1st-10th with the fastest winning the pole.
How Do They Set the Field?
Now that we know how each session works, let’s talk about how NASCAR decides who does and does not make the field for a race. It’s not as simple as the fastest cars in qualifying make the race.
In the NASCAR Cup Series, all 36 chartered teams are guaranteed a starting spot in every regular season race regardless of qualifying speed. If a race team enters the race without a charter, they are considered an “Open” team without a guaranteed starting spot. A full Cup Series field is 40 cars, so, a maximum of 4 Open entries can make the race.
For most races, the 4 fastest Open cars make the field while the slowest go home without racing. However, it is very rare for a Cup Series race to send drivers home. Only 12 races had any open entrants in 2023, and the Daytona 500 was the only race with more than 40 entrants.
The Daytona 500 has a slightly different procedure. For the 4 open cars, two spots are available for the top Open cars in each duel race, and the last two spots are for the two fastest not already qualified cars on pole day. The other drivers go home.
In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, the procedure is slightly different. Field sizes are 38 cars instead of 40 in the Cup Series. This series typically sends cars home in almost every race. Every race in 2023 had a full field of 38 cars.
While NASCAR does not release its’ rulebook to the public, we do have Reddit user @iamaranger23 to thank for putting out these procedures for determining the field. For everything including the Xfinity and Truck Series, that comes from him.
For the Xfinity Series, positions 1-33 are determined by qualifying speed. Positions 34-37 are determined by the top-4 in Owner’s Points not already in the field (For the first few races of the seasons, they refer to the previous season’s Owner’s Points). The last spot is reserved for the most recent past Champion. If there is no past Champion not already qualified, then it goes to the highest car still remaining in Owner’s points.
This is why you will often see Xfinity Series teams swapping Owner’s Points with defunct race teams in the offseason. The higher a team is in the Owner’s points, the more likely it is they will make the field. The past Champions provisional also makes past Series Champions great candidates for rides.
Truck Series qualifying functions very similar to Xfinity Series qualifying, but, fields are reduced to 36 teams. This is an increase from previous years where the Truck Series previously had a 32-car cap. A total of 20 out of 23 races had a full field in 2023.
Just like the Xfinity Series, the final 5 spots are provisionals determined by Owner’s Points. The top 31 cars are determined by the fastest qualifying speeds, and positions 32-36 are determined by the highest not already qualified drivers in Owner’s Points.
Just like the Xfinity Series, Owner’s Points are often swapped from defunct teams to current teams in the offseason. This is to give teams a better chance of qualifying for races.
What If Qualifying Is Cancelled?
While NASCAR will often reschedule or delay races if it rains, they cannot do the same for qualifying. If it rains before or during a qualifying session that usually means the session is cancelled altogether, and the field is set by the NASCAR rulebook.
For the Cup Series, NASCAR uses metrics to determine the field. That metric is as follows according to NASCAR.com, 15% of a fastest lap time position, 25% of the driver’s previous race finish position, 25% of the owner’s previous race finish position, and 35% of the owner points position.
For the Xfinity and Truck Series, it’s a bit different. NASCAR uses a hierarchy to determine the field, using the Owner’s Points to determine the vast majority of the field, then filling out the rest with different qualifiers including practice speeds, recent race winners (Both Owner and Driver), past Champions, and even going deeper into Owner’s Points if they have to. It can get a bit confusing to follow, so, it’s usually best to just let the cycle fill you in on who makes the race in this scenario.
This is how NASCAR qualifying works in a nutshell. Be sure to tune in every weekend as qualifying determines the field for a NASCAR race.