After weeks of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers gaming the group-qualifying system in a race to be last on track every week for an aerodynamic advantage, and weeks of officials trying to curb that with rules tweaks, it’s all over. NASCAR’s going back to single-car qualifying, effective immediately.
NASCAR announced the change on Wednesday afternoon, reversing the decision it made about five years ago to go from single-car qualifying attempts to group qualifying with timed elimination rounds. The change isn’t just for the series gaming qualifying, though—it’s for all three of NASCAR’s national series, including the lower Xfinity Series and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
The only places where group qualifying will still apply are road courses, and, in single-car qualifying, there will be no elimination rounds. Every driver just has one trip out on track, and will get two timed qualifying laps at oval tracks 1.25 miles and shorter, and one timed lap at any oval longer than that.
Compared to the announcement of group qualifying for the 2014 season, which said the move was “aimed toward enhancing the fan experience watching at the track and at home,” NASCAR simply said this season’s move came because “the multi-car system had become untenable.”
That’s because NASCAR’s overhauled 2019 aerodynamics package puts drivers leading the group-qualifying pack at a disadvantage, and the announcement on single-car qualifying summed up the problems with that pretty well:
That qualifying cat-and-mouse game boiled over in March at Auto Club Speedway, when none of the top qualifiers wanted to be first out and all 12 failed to log a final-round speed. [...]
Before reverting to single-car qualifying, competition officials introduced a handful of stopgap moves in hopes of curbing the antics in the multi-car format. Officials added a deterrence element after the Auto Club incident, disallowing all qualifying speeds if a driver failed to post a time in subsequent rounds. The department also tried to establish better-defined staging areas for teams waiting to make their lap at the pit-road exit, but that led to a competition for better parking spots at Texas and what Clint Bowyer termed as “clogging” after congestion hindered his qualifying efforts.
The qualifying rounds, before and after tweaks, were hilarious. Drivers clumped at the end of pit road, inching forward in an attempt to not be first, while radio communications would give stern warnings about how long they had to get on track and start a lap before the timer for the session hit zero.
Before giving up completely, NASCAR shortened qualifying rounds at Richmond Raceway to try to up the sense of urgency to get out onto the track. Then, this week, NASCAR gave up.
The announcement said the single-car move was a “unified” decision between broadcasters, teams and NASCAR, and that to make it more interesting on TV, a ghost car showing the racing line and speed of another driver—usually the one on provisional pole—compared to the current qualifier will be a “big element.” Broadcasters are also planning to talk to more teams during qualifying, since they won’t all be out on track (or pit road, as they have been lately) at once.
So, say a fond farewell to group qualifying with this year’s Cup Series aero rules, because while NASCAR didn’t like how goofy it looked, it sure was funny. But don’t fret, because it won’t take teams long to find other rules and systems to screw around with to their advantage—and to our entertainment.