Craig Murto: Daytona qualifying sparks debate


Tonight’s twin 150-mile qualifying races, known as the Budweiser Duels, will determine the starting grid for Sunday’s running of the 2015 Daytona 500.

Jeff Gordon will start Sunday’s race on the pole with Jimmie Johnson alongside. Those starting positions were the only two set by last Sunday’s group qualifying, though four other drivers — Carl Edwards, Aric Almirola, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jamie McMurray — are guaranteed starters based on setting the fastest non-qualified times of the three sessions.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin will start their qualifying races from the rear of the field after failing post-qualifying inspection. TV coverage of the Budweiser Duels can be seen live on FoxSports1 beginning at 7 p.m.

There were a number of good stories that came out of Sunday’s knock-out qualifying. Jeff Gordon will start on the pole for his final Daytona 500. None of the Fords made it to the 12-car third and final qualifying round. But the biggest story was the group qualifying itself.

Though group qualifying was used last season at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, this is the first time it’s been used for the Daytona 500. To say it was not popular with fans and drivers is an understatement.

Clint Bowyer and Reed Sorensen crashed and took out a number of other cars in the first round of qualifying. That alone raised a number of flags against the procedure.

And we still saw cars waiting on pit road until the last possible second to go out and make an attempt. At least the waiting time was short compared to the last race at Talladega, as the time given for each session has been shortened from 15 minutes to five.

Of course, social media exploded with criticism, both from a few drivers and from fans.

The procedure needs to be tweaked on restrictor-plate tracks. Do not allow the teams to wait, make them go out on the track as soon as the session starts. If it appears that a team is purposely not getting up to speed on the first lap of the session, black flag that car.

Nobody wanted to be the first car in line in group qualifying on a restrictor-plate track. To make the order in which they go out onto the track less random, mandate they go out slowest car first, based on practice speeds. Put an end to the waiting and jockeying for position on pit road before each run.

Some fans claimed the group qualifying isn’t fair. Well, it’s the same for everybody, so of course it’s fair. Fans complained that it causes crashes. No, drivers cause crashes, and they’re just as likely to crash in practice. Another complaint was that it is made for TV. Of course it is, and TV paid a ton of money for it.

Single-car qualifying is more boring than watching paint dry. There wasn’t much of a crowd for pole day, but if they ever want to bring a crowd back they aren’t going to do it with drying paint.

Group qualifying is used by most major racing series across the globe. Please don’t tell me that NASCAR drivers aren’t good enough to participate.

And frankly, I didn’t watch qualifying live as it happened. I recorded it in case something happened worth seeing. The explosion of posts on social media made me watch qualifying in its entirety. Do you think I would have watched three hours of single-car qualifying?

NASCAR is often at the forefront, though it doesn’t get credit. It was the first to impose pit road speed limits and make over-the-wall crew members wear safety gear. NASCAR pit crew members were protected as Formula One crew still wore shorts on pit road.

Fans complain that the group qualifying didn’t work, and they are absolutely incorrect. It did work. Would we still be talking about single-car qualifying?

Pit road procedures were a work in progress at one time. NASCAR tried odd/even pit stops under caution, and variations thereof before settling on the procedures we have today. Even pace car procedures used by NASCAR are best; when F1 needs a safety car somebody always gets robbed of track position, and they score half the number of cars.

Does NASCAR’s group qualifying format need to be tweaked? Of course. But don’t expect group qualifying to go away anytime soon. Expect it to get better.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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