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NASCAR returns to single-car qualifying at all oval tracks

NASCAR officials announced Wednesday that all three national series will return to single-car qualifying at all oval tracks.

The rules change ends a run of five-plus years for the group qualifying format, which was introduced before the 2014 season. The group qualifying system will remain for the series’ three road-course events.

Officials also dropped the use of multiple elimination-style rounds. The changes go into effect for this weekend’s NASCAR tripleheader at Dover International Speedway.

At oval tracks larger than 1.25 miles (Darlington Raceway and larger), teams will determine the starting lineup with a single timed qualifying lap. At tracks 1.25 miles and shorter (World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and smaller), teams will start on the basis of the best of two timed single-car laps.

Competition officials made the alteration after a steep rise in qualifying gamesmanship through the first quarter of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. With the series’ 2019 rules package placing an emphasis on the aerodynamic draft, teams often waited for the most advantageous position (receiving an aero pull) before making a qualifying attempt.

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. That incident and a chaotic qualifying session two weeks later at Texas Motor Speedway drew the ire of Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, who said April 1 that officials were considering all options — including a return to single-car runs.

Wednesday, officials reaffirmed that the multi-car system had become untenable.

“It was (a) unified (decision) between broadcasters, teams and NASCAR,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior VP of competition, said of returning to single-car runs.

“One of the other things to make a compelling program out of it is we’ve seen the use of the ghost car (on television). That’s going to be a big element in presenting a quality show. I think fans are going to be able to see which drivers drive in deep, which drivers roll the middle faster and get off the corners faster and really give the talent in the booth something to talk about.

“Another interesting aspect is every team has a good shot of getting covered during the qualifying session. We’re building in a few two-minute breaks to where TV can get some spots in and not break away from live action. That’s one of the goals in this, and I think with those designated spots and breaks we will be able to present almost a whole qualifying session live without going away.”

The qualifying order draw will be determined by the previous race’s starting lineup. For example, in the Monster Energy Series, the top 20 starters from the previous race will draw to take their qualifying lap in positions 21-40 (the second half of qualifying). The remainder of the cars will draw to qualify in positions 1-20.

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 last change officials came in April at Richmond Raceway, where the length of the qualifying rounds shrank to create more urgency in placing a lap, with all three rounds clocking just five minutes each.

Multi-car qualifying was used for road-course events in 2013, ahead of its full implementation at every track the following season. It was eliminated from superspeedway races at Daytona and Talladega in March 2015 as a safety measure after a series of crashes and questionable aero games made the system unfeasible at those high-speed circuits.

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