On Wednesday night, it felt like the most normal NASCAR race weekend experience that we’ve collectively had, as a sport, since before the pandemic began. NASCAR Cup Series cars were qualifying for the first time in more than eight months, and it would determine most of the teams that would get to race in the 2021 edition of the Daytona 500 before the Bluegreen Vacations Duel races on Thursday.
Sure, there was qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway last year, after the return to racing post-pandemic break, but that was more of a formality, coming into the race having all 40 drivers guaranteed a spot, and it was also a testing of the waters post-COVID.
Of course, Matt DiBenedetto and Aric Almirola both had issues during their qualifying laps, and possibly as a result, qualifying never returned for the remainder of the 2020 NASCAR season.
NASCAR announced that for the 2021 season, there will only be eight race weekends with qualifying. The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte will again be one of those race weekends, as well as the Phoenix Raceway season finale. Together with the five new venues to the Cup Series schedule and the Daytona 500, less than 25% of the race weekends will feature the old normal of practice and qualifying on race weekends.
The change was supposedly made to help teams save money, by not needing a backup car on most race weekends. It also reduces the time spent at the track by everyone still living in a world with COVID-19. With the NASCAR Next-Gen car set to debut in 2022, it kind of makes sense why this season is as restricted as it is, but I really hope that it’s not something we see continue any longer, especially past 2021.
Thankfully, NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in a press conference on Friday that he feels that it’s likely that both practice and qualifying will return more prominently in 2022, but I feel like the change needs to be made now following the rain issues found on Saturday afternoon for the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Phelps: 💭 "For 2022, my feeling is that we'll probably go back to more practice and qualifying."— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) February 12, 2021
I would argue that by getting rid of qualifying completely, or by limiting it, you lose a part of what makes NASCAR what it is. It’s way more difficult in this day and age to start up a team and show up to the track, but by removing qualifying completely, those startups might be doomed from the start. When rain washed out qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona, the BEEF. It’s What’s for Dinner. 300 on Saturday afternoon, five race teams were told to pack it up, four of them being new entries into the series in 2021.
With qualifying not set to return for a while, depending on the number of entries on a weekly basis, these new Xfinity teams might not get a chance to race until the next time qualifying returns due to not even getting a chance to earn owner’s points in the first race weekend of the 2021 season.
In general, most people would argue that qualifying doesn’t mean what it once used to, with the addition of the charter system in the Cup Series, and, on some weekends, less than a full field of cars showing up. Some would argue that with the system in place to set the field utilizing points, recent results, and lap times from the last event, that it might even be unnecessary.
To me, it’s always been a spectacle to see how fast these teams can go, or how far a driver will push their equipment in a time trial setting. Races aren’t always won by the fastest car, but it’s somewhat important to figure out who the fastest car for each individual race is. Basing a lineup off of a math equation just doesn’t do the same justice as seeing how trimmed out these teams can make these cars for one fast lap.
In my honest opinion, a time slot for qualifying, whether it’s on the same day of the race or a day beforehand, is not asking for too much.
I remember, sitting up in the press box at Pocono Raceway last year, with all three series plus the ARCA Menards Series, how strange it was that ARCA got to both practice and qualify, but the Top 3 NASCAR series in attendance had to rely on math to set their fields, and an invert for the second race of the Cup doubleheader.
To me, taking qualifying out of the equation limits the growth of each series (as does the charter system in my opinion, but that’s a separate argument). Maybe they don’t need to have so much, or even any practice, but a chance to qualify doesn’t seem like too much to ask for. I hope NASCAR can see this and make changes before the next race weekend at the Daytona Road Course.
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
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