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NASCAR qualifying; What’s the best way to do it?

NASCAR qualifying; What’s the best way to do it?

Recently NASCAR has confirmed the dates of the first six national series races as real racing resumes in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown. Notably, NASCAR has said that with the exception of the Charlotte 600-mile race (Coca-Cola 600) on May 24th, none of the other races will have any scheduled practice or qualifying sessions. The 600 will have a qualifying session – but no prior practice sessions – to set the field. Hence, for all the other May races, the starting line-up will be established by some criteria other than qualifying speeds. It looks like they will use championship points standings for the first few races and, perhaps, go over to using the results of the previous race later on.

I’ve often thought that, given that the NASCAR races are so long, that they could use different criteria to set their starting line-ups. There was a time when the Cup practice and qualifying sessions of Friday could draw big crowds but, nowadays, we seldom see much of a crowd except for the Cup race on Sunday. So perhaps it might be the time for NASCAR to consider other methods of establishing the starting lineup – either for these COVID-19 special races or for the regular races that will eventually follow.

First, let’s review some of the different criteria which are used/could be used to set the race’s starting lineup.

1. Qualifying times/speeds
• This is the most popular method. Lap times are recorded for each car either in the regular practice sessions or in a special ‘qualifying’ sessions. The cars are lined up in order of their speeds, normally in descending order (i.e the fastest at the front). Often all the cars can go out on the track at once to set qualifying times; sometimes the cars are sent out one-at-a-time to set their qualifying lap speeds. The latter method helps prevent the complication of one car’s lap speed being greater than normal due to drafting with another car which is on the race track as the same time or having one’s fast time compromised by coming up on a slower car.

2. Championship points standings
• In the absence of any qualifying times the race officials may line the cars up in order of their current championship points standings. This is standard procedure for NASCAR when the scheduled qualifying session is rained out.

3. Results of preliminary heat/qualifying races
• It is quite common in short-track racing to establish the starting order for the ‘final’ based on the results of the heat races held leading up to the final. In general, if there are two heat races, then the final lineup is set up by lining up the finishers in the first heat in finishing order on the preferred row (outside or inside) and the finishers of the second heat in order in the other row. There can be many variations on this, given different methods of determining the starting order for the heats and the number of heat races used to sort out the final starting order.

4. Results of the most recent race
• This principle is applied when they use the results of heat races to set up the starting lineup for the final. There is some talk of basing the lineup on the previous points race results for the COVID-19 races that do not have any qualifying sessions.

5. Invert the starting order
• Sometimes they invert all or part of the logical starting order (as determined by one of the criteria above). This means that the fastest qualifiers are NOT starting from the front and they will have to fight their way past the slower cars ahead of them to get to the front and win the race. In the old GM Camaro/Firebird series I think they inverted the starting positions of the front ten qualifiers. It does make for exciting racing.

Which is the best or fairest method of establishing the race’s starting order?
• I would argue that any one of these criteria is arbitrary and there is no one method that is clearly more fair that the other. Usually race fans like the one they are familiar with and can explain why it is, to them, the best.
• The most common concept in setting the grid is to put the cars which are potentially the fastest in the race at the front and then in order towards the back. If this is the idea, then I argue that the qualifying speeds should be taken with the cars in the exact race setup, not in some special qualifying form. Many (most?) race series allow teams to adjust their cars between the qualifying run and the actual race. At one time NASCAR even allowed teams to replace the ‘qualifying’ engine with one tuned for longer life in the race. Most NASCAR races do allow the teams to make adjustments on the cars after practice – to put them into race tune.
• For some races, NASCAR and others impound the cars after qualifying, forcing teams to start the race with their car in exactly the same setup as used n qualifying, including the tires. If the grid is to be based on the qualifying times as a measure of the car’s potential speed in the race, then this is the way it should be done always. Note that when this rule is in force, the teams often make some adjustments on the first pit stop and replace the tires used for qualifying with fresh times at this time.
• When qualifying is not possible – usually for rain – NASCAR bases the starting lineup on the current points standings (with a few tweaks to the last few rows to help season-long entrants make the field). I think this is second best to using qualifying times
• In the past when NASCAR races ran the full distance without pre-ordained breaks, the racing was semi-endurance racing – and for a long race like that, the starting order is of less significance, so it doesn’t much matter which method of establishing the starting lineup is used. Now that the NASCAR races have been broken up into three relatively short heat races, the initial starting order may be more important than before.
• NASCAR says that it may use championship points standings to establish the grid or it may use the results of the previous race. I suppose that this would be an attempt to jazz up the racing – but it does seem to indicate that they are not committed to a specific rationale for setting the grids. I feel that, if an organizing body arbitrarily chops and changes it rules from one rationale to another, it cheapens the competition into rules by whim. They should pick one method and stick by it.

• Do the COVID-19 race rules make sense?
• Under the COVID-19 rules, NASCAR is set to run the races with no practice or qualifying sessions, simply unload the cars and race. Remember that the teams have no opportunity to test the cars beforehand either.
• Keep in mind that for NASCAR cars particularly, it is often (usual?) for the cars to unload without a proper setup and it may take all the practice time allowed to make the adjustments need to make the car competitive. If there is no chance to test the car beforehand or on race day at the track, then we can expect that some (many?) cars will start the race with uncompetitive setups, leaving these teams to scramble to adjust their cars during early pit stops in the race itself. Given our desire to see close but fair competition among all the cars, this will detract from the racing.
• To me, it seems that they have taken too hard a line on limiting track activity to the race itself. I’ve argued that the grid order is not paramount, so I would agree with their position to not base it on qualifying times but they should use their existing rules for setting the grid when qualifying is rained out (i.e. based on championship points).
• I would strongly argue that one or even two practice sessions are an integral part of the race event, given the importance of these practice sessions to give every team a chance to fine-tune their race setup. Why not have two practice sessions, the first a one-hour session beginning at 9:00 am and the second half-hour session, after a one-hour break to allow the teams to adjust their cars, starting at 11:00 am. This would give everyone time to get their cars set up for the race itself which could start at 1:00 pm or a bit later? I know that this would require NASCAR to organize two inspection sessions – one first thing in the morning and another after the second practice session, but I feel that this kind of program would be feasible for a one-day event run at a track within close distance of the Charlotte area where the teams are based. (If they need to extend these special COVID-19 rules events on longer, perhaps Martinsville and Bristol would also be within one-day travel consideration.)

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