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Should NASCAR Ditch Group Qualifying?

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Joshua Lipowski

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What’s Happening?

On Tuesday, NASCAR announced a change to the Cup Series qualifying procedure. Not everyone was a fan of the new procedure; some suggested NASCAR return to single-car qualifying. With all the complaints, is it time for NASCAR to ditch group qualifying completely?

  • The new procedure for qualifying has Group A determine the outside of rows 6-20 and Group B determine the inside of rows 6-20. The top 10 are determined by a second round of qualifying amongst the top 5 in each group.
  • NASCAR moved away from single-car qualifying to group qualifying in 2014. The move was originally intended to make qualifying more entertaining, but, has it done that?
  • Fans are split in general on the idea of group qualifying. Some love it, but others do not like it.

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The History of Group Qualifying

To be well-informed on this debate, it’s important to know how we got here in the first place. Prior to 2014, qualifying was very simple. Every entrant would get one opportunity to set 2 timed laps. The best of those laps would be their qualifying time, and each driver’s fastest lap set the starting lineup.

However, some complained that this qualifying procedure was boring and took too long. At some bigger race tracks where laps take over 50 seconds, qualifying would take around 2 hours to complete. Watching one driver at a time was tedious to some.

In 2014, NASCAR made a radical new approach to qualifying called, “Knockout qualifying”. Qualifying would now consist multiple timed sessions and the slowest drivers would be eliminated until the last round, where the pole was awarded. There were 3 sessions on big tracks (all cars in round 1, 24 cars in round 2, and 12 cars in round 3), and there were 2 sessions on short tracks (all cars in round 1 and 12 cars in round 2).

Group qualifying had its’ benefits, but, it also had ugly moments. There was a big crash during qualifying for the 2015 Daytona 500, which was the first time group qualifying was used for the “Great American Race”. The ugliest moment came during 2019 Auto Club 400 qualifying, where every driver waited too long to get out of pit road and no one made it to the line in time to set a lap in the final round.

NASCAR made some tweaks to the procedure in the following years. Since 2022, NASCAR has split all drivers into two groups with the top 5 in each group moving on to the final round to go for the pole. Superspeedway qualifying has morphed into one lap for every driver.

Group Qualifying or Single Car Qualifying?

NASCAR has both group qualifying and single-car qualifying in the sport today in some form of fashion. Now that we know the philosophy behind why NASCAR went the way it did, here are some of the pros and cons of both.

Pros of Single Car Qualifying

The biggest benefit of single-car qualifying is that it is simple and easy to follow. Every driver goes out onto the track, and the fastest driver gets the pole. There are no gimmicks and no frills.

From a sponsor and team owner’s perspective, it also guarantees that every driver gets some form of TV time. They are the one car on the track, and that means uninterrupted advertising of the team and the sponsor on the car for the entirety of a qualifying run. This is especially important for teams who don’t run up front often, and, as a result, do not get much TV time during a race.

Cons of Single Car Qualifying

The main issue with single-car qualifying is that it can be boring to watch for the viewer. Yes, it can be cool to watch one driver rip a track record lap, but, continuously watching one car tale a time trial lap can get old. Single-car qualifying is just watching cars driving in circles.

These sessions often take a lot of time as well, which can have some unintended consequences. As a session goes on, track conditions may change, which gives drivers who either go early or late an unfair advantage.

Pros of Group Qualifying

Group qualifying often means multiple cars are on the track at the same time. It’s objectively more interesting to watch multiple drivers on the track at the same time, even if they are not racing each other. Fans can focus on whichever drivers they want since multiple drivers are taking laps.

Group qualifying is also usually done via a timed session. This means that qualifying does not take an excessive amount of time, and, multiple drivers have access to the track at the same time. This can help alleviate some advantages and disadvantages drivers face based on when they get onto the track.

Cons or Group Qualifying

The biggest issue with group qualifying is that it can be tough to follow. Under NASCAR’s new rules, a driver who qualifies 13th may have a slower time than a driver who qualifies 16th. That can be tough for some fans to follow instead of simply the faster driver getting the higher spot.

Group qualifying can also cause what some would call “needless” issues on the race track. Drivers can get stuck behind another driver when trying to qualify, which can ruin a qualifying lap.

Which side of the fence do you fall on? Should NASCAR ditch group qualifying or should NASCAR keep group qualifying as it is.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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