Daytona Qualifying Disaster

There is an old saying that what drivers hate, fans will love. Sunday afternoon’s qualifying for the starting two position of next week’s Daytona 500 proved that saying wrong. Both fans, drivers, and media alike classified the knockout qualifying rounds as “idiotic,” “dumb,” “the worst,” and “not even entertaining.” The only group that seemed to enjoy it was the FOX broadcast team who had to enjoy the ratings as fans watched in horror at what the Daytona 500 qualifying has become.

Just one year ago, and many years prior, this day was single car qualifying which saw the fastest two drivers be reserved for the front row of the Daytona 500. There was much prestige to be felt by drivers and crews because this was the culmination of an entire offseason of trying to build the fastest car. This year, to spice things up, NASCAR brought in their knockout qualifying format that it had used with success last season (minus the fall Talladega race, another restrictor plate track like Daytona).

This format saw the field split into two groups, with the top 12 in each group advancing to the second round. Then the top twelve of that group would advance to the third and final round, with the fastest car in that session becoming the pole sitter for the “Great American Race.”

The problem with this scenario is a few things, first instead of filling out the entire field, this spectacle was used for the first two spots. In four days there will be two races run to determine order of the field, which feels redundant to put it kindly. The second problem is each round has a three minute clock, but drivers do not start until half the time has passed. This would allow a fast first lap for some, while others might not have had enough time to attempt theirs or would not have enough time to knock you off. So basically for over a minute, cars just sat on pit road waiting. The third problem was exactly what we saw in the first round, which was a multi-car wreck (typical of restrictor plate racing) that not only put some drivers in a bad spot qualifying wise, but in Reed Sorenson’s case, unless his team can rebuild his car in four days, he won’t be able to even try to make it into the race.

Clint Bowyer, who was caught up in the Sorenson wreck after the two made contact, did not hold back in his interview with FOX after being released from the care center. “It’s idiotic to be out here doing this anyway. It makes no sense in being able to put on some cute show for whatever the hell this is, then you have a guy out there in desperation doing this crap like this. There’s no reason to be out here. These guys have spent six months working on these cars, busting their asses on these cars to go out there and have some guy out of desperation do that crap, but it ain’t his fault. It’s not, it’s NASCAR’s fault for putting us out here in the middle of this crap for nothing.”

Other drivers weighed in with similar thoughts as Bowyer, including last season’s Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson. “I think they need to go back to single-car qualifying. I think that’s about it; for Superspeedways anyway, because this is pathetic.” Team owner and driver Tony Stewart took to Twitter to call out NASCAR for what went on today. Keep in mind that all four of his cars did not advance past the first round, but I think the frustration was beyond that.

In my opinion, AJ Allmendinger’s assessment of the day was spot on. “Honestly, I could have cared less how I qualified. I just didn’t want to wreck. Restrictor-plate qualifying; it’s going to be boring or dumb, no matter what, honestly. It’s the nature of it. It’s pretty cool for a race team to win the Daytona 500 pole. That’s prestigious and that’s important. But the rest of the speedway qualifying doesn’t really matter. You could just draw out of a hat for Sunday and that would be a lot easier.”

Naturally the cheerleaders of what we saw were the FOX broadcasters Darrell Waltrip, Mike Joy, and Larry McReynolds. Also joining that bandwagon was ex-driver Kenny Wallace, who works for FOX, and current driver Michael Waltrip, who works for FOX. Waltrip went so far as to say he had fun in his car out there trying to qualifying for the 500. I understand they have to keep things positive, but just another reminder of why I don’t mind turning down the volume on the TV while races are on.

The lone positive in this whole debacle was Jeff Gordon picking up the pole for his final Daytona 500. The final round of qualifying almost saw half the field running not even being able to register a time as they played chicken waiting for someone to leave pit road. Had Martin Truex, Jr. just waited a few more seconds, he could have been the lone driver to make a time and collect the pole. Instead, it was Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson creating an all Chevrolet front row for the season opening race. “This is one of the most gratifying poles here at Daytona that I have ever had,” commented Gordon.

I just hope for all the complaining that drivers and fans did today NASCAR will learn from their mistake and not do this again. The realist in me, though, believes NASCAR will fine drivers like Bowyer (whose whole rant was epic) and Stewart for speaking out in order to send the message that they need NASCAR more than NASCAR needs them. I hope Thursday is not as much of a shit show as today was.