Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is total madness, as drivers actually want to go out last. The guy behind a bunch of other traffic usually posts the fastest time. NASCAR's bizarre group qualifying format where the first qualifying groups can leave the pits as late as they want just caused a huge wreck.
Here's how qualifying is supposed to work, in theory. Qualifying is split into three rounds, with the first round split into two run groups based on a random drawing. Both groups in round one get five minutes of track time to post their fastest times. Round two features the 24 fastest drivers from the first round, sorted in descending order. They get five minutes to post a fastest lap. Finally, the last twelve move on to the final qualifying round, where once again, they're sorted in descending order by time and get five minutes to post a fast lap.
Only the two fastest cars are locked in for the Daytona 500, however. Qualifying today determines the order for the Budweiser Duel on Thursday, where the cars that finished in positions 3 through 32 race for starting position at the 500. (Autoweek has a more detailed explainer of how the Duel races work here.)
Why, then, is the best spot the last one in line? The last car is the fastest, of course. This has to do with wind resistance on the cars. The car in front encounters the most wind resistance, so it typically posts the slowest time. The car at the very back encounters the least, as cars in front of it effectively block the wind in its path. That's why you want to run at the back: to get that fastest posted speed.
"If you're not first, you're last!" does not apply here.
Daytona is a superspeedway with higher speeds than many tracks, hence wind resistance being a bigger factor. (Driver Parker Klingerman explains the drafting strategy needed to do well at the Daytona 500 in more detail in his "How To Win The Daytona 500" explainer here.)
According to USA Today motorsports reporter Jeff Gluck, radio chatter confirmed two different strategies floating around for being last. Some thought going with the group that goes out of the pits first for Round One was the solution, and others felt that waiting for the biggest group to go was the key to being last.
Either way, it's one of the most bizarre methods of qualifying in motorsports.
It's this first round where cars are allowed to head out on track whenever they deem fit during their run group's session that caused a big pileup with about one and a half minutes left in the session:
NASCAR went to the group qualifying format as a more entertaining way of qualifying than the safer single-car superspeedway qualifying they previously used. When they saw that cars weren't using most of the time they were given, they shortened the sessions to five minutes.
This qualifying format has been almost universally reviled by drivers since its inception, and now we've got a good illustration as to why. It's dangerous. Cars vying to make it to higher rounds take more risks in these five-minute sessions.
Clint Bowyer's #15 car got collected by Reed Sorenson's damaged, slower moving #44 car, causing a big pileup. J.J. Yeley, Denny Hamlin and Bobby Labonte also had cars damaged in the wreck.
Needless to say, Bowyer told reporters exactly what he thought of this ridiculous dog-and-pony show that NASCAR passes off as qualifying:
At some point, perhaps entertainment needs to take a back seat to doing things in a logical, safe manner. Allowing cars to head out of the pits as late as they want is a recipe for chaos, as is this confusing battle to be last in order to draft all the traffic in front of you.
Kurt Busch explained that one-car qualifying is a better solution and put forth this alternate idea on how to run Daytona 500 qualifying to NASCAR:
We should just take the cars as we build them in the off‑season, unload, pass tech, then go qualify one car at a time, four‑lap average. That would really give a sense of pride to putting effort towards building a car to qualify for the Daytona 500 instead of shaking up bingo balls.
After all, trying to watch cars aim for the back of the pack isn't that much more entertaining than watching them set flying laps by themselves.
Sorenson is apologetic about being involved in the wreck. He had this to say to FOX, as quoted by NASCAR:
I was doing everything I could to stay in front of Clint...I didn't mean to wreck anybody or anything like that.
I didn't want it to end that way, that's for sure. I apologize to all the guys. Try to get a here and try to get in the race on Thursday.
He's not even sure he'll be racing this weekend, as he doesn't have a back-up car on hand.
Other drivers are none too happy about the messy qualifying session, either.
"It's hard to stand behind NASCAR when everybody I talk to up and down pit road doesn't understand why we're doing this," said Ryan Newman to NASCAR. "Maybe I need to be sat down and educated a little bit."
None of the cars from qualifying Group 1A made it through to the second round of qualifying. It's hard to put down a flying lap when the cars in front of you all crash into each other.
UPDATE: Soon to be retired driver Jeff Gordon just won pole for the Daytona 500. I guess that makes a nice story for Travis' personal nightmare, however, it's definitely been overshadowed by the mess from the first qualifying group.
Photo credit: NASCAR