Questions about NASCAR qualifying process

Well, the biggest race weekend of the season is behind us, and congratulations to Dario Franchitti on winning the second half of the Indy 500, to Casey Mears on his first Nextel Cup victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's, and to Fernando Alonso for leading the parade at the Grand Prix of Monte Carlo.

And to the loyal race fans who probably have recliner rash and remote controller thumb after the race-watching marathon.

There has been a lot of discussion among racers, press, and fans about NASCAR Nextel Cup qualifying recently. Only a few years ago, a few "field fillers" would show up every week to flesh out the starting grid to 43 cars, take the green flag, and pull into the pits after a couple of laps.

That situation has now been replaced by its mirror opposite, with as many as 50 competitive entries showing up for each race and disappointed teams loading up to go home after failing to qualify. Some have called for NASCAR to change the rule that guarantees starting spots to the top 35 cars in owner points, urging that the number be reduced to 30 or 25, or that protected spots be eliminated altogether with the 43 fastest qualifiers starting each weekend. Some have even suggested increasing the size of the field at the longer speedways to allow all qualifiers to run, as was done in the early days of the sport. But no more than 43 cars at Bristol, please.

As always, NASCAR will do what NASCAR wants to do, but I recently heard another suggestion that I found intriguing. This was to do away with single car qualifying, which can be as boring as watching paint dry, in favor of European style qualifying with a number of cars on the track at the same time.

There is a precedent for this, as the Busch series road race in Mexico uses this qualifying format, grouping cars with similar practice speeds and putting them out for a specified time period and using their fastest lap as their qualifying time. The current Formula 1 qualifying format, now in its second season, is probably more exciting to watch than the race. It consists of three 15-minute sessions, with the slowest six cars eliminated in each of the first two sessions, and the third session setting the top 10 starting spots. I for one would certainly find watching Nextel Cup qualifying more interesting if it were to switch to a modification of that format.

Although F1 qualifying is thrilling, the racing is less so (except for watching young rookie Louis Hamilton of McLaren give driving lessons to seasoned veterans). With a major overhaul in chassis design regulations not due until 2011, ideas are floating around to change race formats in the interim to promote more passing. One idea that has been proposed is to run F1 races in two heats, with the grid inverted for the second race, but nothing as yet has reached the approval stage.

The 2011 formula is still being hammered out, but the two main goals of the exercise are to reduce the astronomical costs and to make the sport more environmentally responsible. The new 2011 rules will encourage manufacturers to design engines that are more efficient, with technology that will be transferable to road cars. This will allow the manufacturers to recoup some of their development costs and will also be a more environmentally sound approach, according to F1 president Max Mosley.

Finally, the latest episode of "Where in the world is Junior going?" As you'll recall if you haven't been living in a cave in Pakistan, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving DEI at the end of the season.

He has declared himself a Chevy man forever, thereby eliminating the Roush, Penske, Evernham, Waltrip, Davis and Yates organizations. Hendrick's driver roster is full, and Joe Gibbs Racing won't allow a beer sponsor. Ginn Racing is making a full-court press for Earnhardt's services, and Richard Childress is mum on the subject. If I were a betting man, I'd lay odds on Junior taking wads of Budweiser money and starting up his own operation. But I could be wrong.


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