The instant all 12 cars failed to take the green flag of Friday’s final qualifying round at Fontana was the same moment this qualifying format died.
Austin Dillon won perhaps the most unique pole in NASCAR history by posting a speed of 0.00 mph in the final round of qualifying, beating everyone else based on his Round 2 time because not a single driver made an official lap in the completed session.
Just 39 days ago, NASCAR’s Scott Miller said the sanctioning body would retain group qualifying for this season — despite the probability of cars drafting at intermediate tracks.
That went against what NASCAR does with the Truck Series, where single-car qualifying is required on tracks where the drivers can draft. But when it came to the Cup Series, Miller had said, “We’re in show business.”
It was a fun and optimistic thought that lasted until Friday — when the show turned into a “mockery,” as Miller put it. Suddenly, that was the end of the current qualifying procedures.
“We hoped things would go better than that,” Miller said. “Obviously, we have a little work to do on our part to get a better format so things like that can’t happen. We certainly want to provide our fans with what they deserve, and we — and the teams — didn’t do a very good job of that today. So we’re certainly disappointed.”
Unfortunately, there aren’t any other obvious solutions out there. Drivers had more shoulder shrugs than suggestions when asked what NASCAR should do now.
Whether it’s one big round of group qualifying or a hybrid solution (two group rounds plus a single-car round), there’s no way to avoid drafting when cars are allowed to qualify at the same time.
“I don’t know what else you can do, because the lead car is at such a disadvantage in qualifying,” Denny Hamlin said. “You don’t want to be first (in the draft) — and when you don’t want to be first, it will be a waiting game no matter what.”
But for the most part, the drivers seemed to recognize change was coming — particularly after they heard boos from the stands after their almost-laps.
“I’ve seen it in other sports, but I’ve never seen it in ours: We just got booed,” a visibly discouraged Clint Bowyer said. “It’s disappointing for everybody involved. I saw this coming three weeks ago; I think we all did.
“I know we’re capable as an industry of putting on a better show than that and I know they’ll make the right provisions to make that correct. Unfortunately, it’s going to take something like that to make that adjustment.”
The adjustment — in whatever form — will likely come by Texas in two weeks (drivers can’t draft at Martinsville next week). But the solution is yet to be determined.
“We’ve been working on a few other things, but we really don’t want to go to back to single-car qualifying,” Miller said. “There may not be another way. But we want to try to exhaust every possibility before we do that, because it’s just not as fun, not as intriguing of a show as the group situation.”
Jimmie Johnson acknowledged single-car qualifying isn’t as entertaining, but said “we’ll have to pick from the lesser of two evils in the end” — though which one is lesser option remains unclear.
Other opinions ranged from being fine with the current format (“I don’t see any problem with it; it’s drama, baby,” Kyle Busch said, perhaps sarcastically) to calling for a return to tradition (“I am still a big fan of single-car qualifying. That is the way qualifying should be,” Ryan Newman said).
Regardless of the solution, there was a sense of disappointment for the fans in attendance who made their opinions known.
“I looked up there in the stands after we got out of our cars and I felt bad for those people, because they paid money to come watch us qualify,” Aric Almirola said. “And they didn’t even get to see us post a lap in the final round.”
Said Kevin Harvick: “I think the crowd booing tells the story.”