CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR abandoned its years-long bid to add excitement to qualifying and announced Wednesday it will return to single-car laps after the current format became a laughingstock.
All three national series will make the change at all oval tracks, starting this weekend at Dover.
NASCAR for more than five years has used a group qualifying format, but a new rules package this season created an unintended consequence: drivers could game the system.
"The teams are always going to do what benefits them the most and unfortunately that was waiting, drafting," said Scott Miller, senior vice president of competition. "It wasn't a very compelling show. We owe it to our fans to provide something that is worth watching."
Miller did not concede it as a victory for the teams, who found every loophole to their benefit.
"I don't think anybody is at fault. It is something we tried, to try to provide a good show, we were optimistic and it didn't work out," Miller said. "Maybe we should have been more proactive, maybe they should have been active. Whatever."
NASCAR was adamant it was trying to keep qualifying entertaining for fans because single-car runs are tedious, but teams continued to find loopholes that made the format a farce. Most drivers waited until the very last moment to pull off pit lane for their qualifying run; and all 12 drivers in the final round at California in March missed the cutoff point to even register a lap.
NASCAR officials were furious and for the past month considered various options, but the emphasis on aerodynamic draft created through the new rules package backed the series into a corner. Teams wanted an aero pull and waited for another driver to go first, and they showed no intention of stopping despite several NASCAR attempts to tighten the rules.
Elimination-style rounds were also cut. Television partners Fox Sports and NBC Sports are tasked with showing qualifying, which had been knockout rounds completed within an hour. Both TV partners indicated to NASCAR they could still produce an interesting show with single-car qualifying, which played a part in NASCAR's decision to go back to a format most find technical and rather boring.
"We've all seen how group qualifying evolved, and with the teams all waiting until the last minute, it became problematic from a content standpoint and also from a storytelling standpoint for the broadcaster and radio perspective," Miller said. "It was very hard to figure out who was doing what when it was (happening) only in two minutes. This is also about restoring general order."
NASCAR said the single-car qualifying format will be in effect for the rest of the season, though group qualifying will remain in place at road courses.
The qualifying order draw will be determined by the previous race's starting lineup. The session should still be completed in an hour, with potentially two cars half a lap apart making runs at the same time, and the networks will rely on technology to enhance the production.
"We obviously want to put on the best show we can and it obviously didn't work out the way we thought it would," Miller said. "We are in the business of racing and putting on a good show at the same time."
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