In its constant battle to find the right recipe of entertainment and competition, NASCAR may be left with a bad taste when it comes to the debut of group qualifying for the Daytona 500.
Group qualifying – which features two or three rounds of cars running on the track at the same time – debuted last season, but at the time NASCAR elected to retain the traditional single-car qualifying runs for its most prestigious race.
As part of several competition changes for 2015, and based on feedback from its use at the July Daytona race and both races at Talladega, Ala., last season, NASCAR added the group format to Speedweeks.
When the three-round process was complete Sunday, Jeff Gordon had no complaints as he won his second career 500 pole, the last coming in the 1999 season.
Gordon announced last month this would be his final season as a full-time competitor in the Sprint Cup Series, so the storyline was certainly a welcome one for NASCAR.
“Great format, Steve!” Gordon yelled from the back of the media center, as NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell was held a news conference addressing the complaints of Gordon’s fellow competitors.
And there were many.
Much of the problems appeared to come from teams and drivers attempting to game the system. With only five-minute rounds, teams waited until the very last moment to release their drivers from pit road in hopes of capitalizing on the draft – and the increased speed that comes with it.
Because of that, much of the rounds featured cars sitting motionless on pit road as the seconds clicked off the clock.
A blocking move by Reed Sorenson in the first session of 25 cars triggered a wreck that dealt major damage to the cars of Clint Bowyer and J.J. Yeley and left several others in need of minor repairs.
The waiting game and damage to cars usually reserved for the races pushed frustrations to the boiling point.
“We used to come down here and worry about who would sit on the front row in the biggest race of the year,” Bowyer said after his incident. “Now all we do is come down here and worry about how a start-and-park (team) like this out of desperation is going to knock us out of the Daytona 500.
“It’s stupid. There’s no sense in doing this.”
Shortly after he failed to advance out of the first round, Tony Stewart posted the following message on his Twitter account:
“Today used to be about showcasing the hard work from the teams over the winter. Now it (sic) a complete embarrassment for our series.”
Today use to be about showcasing the hard work from the teams over the winter. Now it a complete embarrassment for our series. #NASCAR— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) February 15, 2015
Even the pole winner admitted the new format was stressful.
“There’s so much going on in your mind. It’s literally like playing chess at 200 miles an hour,” Gordon said. “It’s pretty crazy.”
As O’Donnell reminded everyone Sunday afternoon, some of the call for change from single-car qualifying runs came from the teams themselves, who didn’t believe the effort put into a car in that format applied to the race.
“They asked if there were ways we could put that focus on the race car that was going to compete in the Daytona 500 versus a one- or two-lap qualifying session,” he said. “That’s what really went into it.”
O’Donnell said NASCAR was again up to suggestions for fixes, but cautioned that the good of the sport had to come first.
“Was it more exciting? Were there more people talking about qualifying? Hopefully so,” he said. “What does that result (bring) in at the end of the day?
“We can’t rely on one driver, one owner, the track. We have to balance that and see what’s in the best interest of the entire sport.”
As is usually the case in NASCAR, there doesn’t appear to be one easy answer.