NASCAR is attempting to solve a problem by doing the thing it was adamant about not doing for the first quarter of the 2019 season. It’s changing the format for qualifying and returning to a single-car format, officials announced Wednesday.
It might not be the flashiest solution to the sport’s qualifying problems or one of the many suggestions to group qualifying from people such as Tony Stewart or Darrell Waltrip. But instead of gambling on weekly changes until they get it right, this is a simple solution that will work and one that will ensure all eligible cars get a lap or two in.
After weeks of uncertainty, unclear interpretations of the rules and varying levels of chaos, including a physical fight, NASCAR did what needed to be done to fix qualifying, despite insisting it would not implement single-car qualifying at short tracks and mid-sized ovals.
Group qualifying was designed to put on a good show for the seldom crowded grandstands and TV audience and began in the 2014 season. But with the new aero package this season, all it did was feature somewhat regular embarrassments at the track and on the broadcasts.
The 2019 aero package places an emphasis on drafting and is designed to manufacture competition with more side-by-side racing. But with group qualifying, no driver wanted to be the first one to hit the track because the leader would be at a significant disadvantage. So they’d basically play a game of chicken, waiting around on pit road.
The result ranged from zero cars getting in a qualifying lap, madness on pit road and public feuds between drivers and officials. And even with what seemed like rules updates each week in an attempt to solve the previous weekend’s issues, new problems kept materializing.
So after saying a return to single-car qualifying was not an option, the sport eventually admitted it was something it needed to consider. And starting at Dover International Speedway this weekend, NASCAR will return to single-car qualifying on ovals for the first time since 2013.
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“It was (a) unified (decision) between broadcasters, teams and NASCAR,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior VP of competition, said via NASCAR.com.
“Another interesting aspect is every team has a good shot of getting covered during the qualifying session.”
Depending on the size of the track, the starting lineup for races will either be determined by one or two qualifying laps, which also drops the multiple elimination rounds previously used.
And this comes five weeks after Miller announced adjustments to the qualifying format but said, “One of the things we wanted to hold true to is not to go back to single-car qualifying. Single-car qualifying is two things — it’s boring and it’s expensive. It also doesn’t create a good show.”
But in this case, what’s better: A less-than-compelling show or regularly making headlines for embarrassments on the track?
Not all press is good press — even for the struggling sport — and that’s why a return to single-car qualifying was the right decision. Perhaps a boring show is tolerable when the alternative was the bad kind of on-track chaos.