Daytona qualifying needs to be changed

What do you do when an old friend is engaging in irrational, self-destructive behavior? Friends, I think it’s time we stage an intervention for NASCAR. After last Sunday’s Daytona qualifying fiasco, it’s evident the sanctioning body can’t continue down this disastrous path. Let’s show Brian France and NASCAR management some tough love and tell them that this can’t continue. We have to try and save them from themselves.

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By my unofficial tally, fan comments on the internet after last Sunday’s pole qualifying for Sunday’s Daytona 500 were about 99.9 percent negative. And not only the fans, but the bulk of the drivers interviewed were highly critical of the format. Clint Bowyer was especially outspoken after destroying the second car of the weekend in the first qualifying session, and Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, and many others were also highly critical of the new format. Personally, I think NASCAR hit a home run last year with the new Chase format, but definitely struck out with Sunday’s Daytona qualifying. Even Darrell Waltrip in the FOX broadcast booth questioned the wisdom of NASCAR management in mandating the five-minute knockout sessions. And in practice, the final sessions were only a fraction of that time, as drivers sat on pit road until there was only enough time left for one or two laps. And on the restart of the first session there wasn’t even that much, as the cars didn’t make it around to the green flag in time.

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Given this particular format proved so disastrous at Talladega last season, I question why NASCAR thought it would work any better at Daytona. And trying to stretch four five-minute sessions into a two-hour telecast gave us lots and lots of commercials and the first time I ever saw a qualifying session start with the full pre-race opening ceremonies of invocation, national anthem, etc. The broadcast was mostly “fill.”

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Having said all that, I like the knockout qualifying format as it’s conducted at other tracks, with longer sessions, less need for the draft, and less desperation. In any case, hearty congratulations to Jeff Gordon on his Daytona 500 pole. His 201.293 MPH is the fifth-fastest pole time in Daytona 500 history and the first since 1987, in the good old non-restrictor-plate days. It’s a great way for him to kick off his final season in the Sprint Cup series. And lest I forget, congratulations also to Matt Kenseth for his dominating performance in the final stages of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited race, breaking a year-long winless streak.

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The Duel races on Thursday set the rest of the field, and drivers were battling for a top-15 finish, which would lock them into the race. The next four lock-ins would be the drivers with the fastest qualifying times that were not already in the race, followed by the top six in owner points not otherwise qualified. The final spot went to past champion Bobby Labonte, and so the field was set for Sunday’s big race. The Hendrick teams have been having a good Daytona so far, with Gordon and Jimmie Johnson starting on the front row and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. inside row two by virtue of winning the first Duel. Johnson beat JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards to the flag in the second Duel. Kasey Kahne is the only disappointment in the Hendrick stable, starting only 13th on the grid.

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So what can we expect Sunday? Will Gordon win his fourth and final Daytona 500? Will it be a different Hendrick driver, perhaps Johnson or Junior? A Gibbs Toyota or a Penske Ford? There are only three sure things about Sunday’s race: restrictor plates, Daytona, and the “big one” lurking. I wouldn’t advise making a bet on the race at your local sports book, because as all NASCAR fans know, anything, and I mean ANYTHING can happen during the Daytona 500. So just grab yourself some snacks and beverages, sit back, and be prepared to be entertained, amused, enraged, bewildered, and perhaps all four simultaneously. As they say, “That’s racin’!”

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