Racing 101, Part 3: Daytona 500 Qualifying

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Racing 101, Part 3: Daytona 500 Qualifying
For most styles of auto racing, there's a simple qualifying formula: best speed. Drivers take their cars out on the track, either in groups (Champ Car, F1) or by themselves (NASCAR's various series), and run one or two laps or a timed period.  The best speeds are then used to set the starting lineup.  If rain cancels qualifying, positions are set based on owner points.
 
Easy enough, right? 
 
In the last few seasons, though, the NASCAR brass in their infinite wisdom have decided to institute the "lock-in" rule, under which the first 35 field positions are determined by owner points.  This was (and is) a halfhearted attempt to lock low-budget teams out of the show—and thus ensure that big-money corporate sponsors get their television time each weekend. 
 
In a starting field of 43 cars, the lock-in rule seriously undermines the hopes of outsiders.  Considering that the top five racing teams field 17 cars (four for Hendrick and Roush; three each for Gibbs, Childress, and Evernham), you've got half the race—and most of the wins—dedicated to the major stables.
 
The lock-in rule is supplemented by the past champion's provisional, which guarantees the final starting position in a race to the most recent past series champion who failed to qualify on speed. The provisional was amended this year to limit the number of provisional berths to six per season—a change sometimes called the Dale Jarrett rule, on the theory that Jarrett will eat up most of the provisionals if Michael Waltrip Racing, the two-time champ's new patron, can't get keep his Camry competitive. If Jarrett can get in on speed, the next candidate for the provisional is Bill Elliott, who's running a limited schedule for a poorly-funded team.

 

For most races in the NASCAR season, qualifying takes place in the days just prior to the event, with all entrants taking one or two "hot laps" before the starting grid is set on speed.  Again, though, the top 35 cars in owner points will all be in the field—regardless of how poorly they perform in qualifying. That means that only the seven open spots are really up for grabs, with either a past champion or an eighth wild card taking the last position. 

 

Qualifying is important in that it dictates a driver's pit-stall location.  Most NASCAR tracks—especially the short ones like Martinsville and Richmond—have some constraints on pit road. A top qualifying position allows a team to choose the sweetest spot in the pits: either the first or last stall, or one adjacent to an opening in the wall around the garage area. Such digs effectively give the driver more room to maneuver coming in and out of the pits, thus diminishing the likelihood of his being blocked by another car.

The Daytona 500 is considered NASCAR's "Super Bowl".  It is the first and most coveted race of the season, and teams spend the entire offseason—part of January and three weeks in February—preparing for it.
 
For all the hype, though, history tells us that a driver's Daytona performance can turn out more or less meaningless by the end of the season. In 2002, Tony Stewart finished dead last in the 500 and went on to win the championship. Scott Riggs failed to qualify for Daytona last year but finished the season a respectable 20th overall—despite having run one fewer race than most of the other competitors in the field.
 
And what about that Daytona field? As drivers prepare for the 49th Daytona 500 this Sunday, we know that 35 teams are guaranteed a spot in the race, and that the past champion's provisional is available, which leaves seven starting positions open to...25 cars! 
 
Yes, you read that right. 
 
There are 61 drivers attempting to qualify for this year's 500—including 72-year-old James Hylton, who first started racing in the 1950s.  Consider this: The names trying to run their way into the show include Michael Waltrip, Jeremy Mayfield, Joe Nemechek, and Ward Burton. Waltrip and Burton have both won the 500 in the last five years, and all four men have won races in the Cup.
 
But so it goes when the majority of the field is set at the end of the previous season.  The Sunday prior to the 500 is when the first actual on-track aspect of qualifying is conducted.  Each driver gets two laps, and top speeds are used to set the front row. Pole position and outside front row are determined by time.  And three of the seven available spots are allotted to the three fastest cars not in the top 35. 
 
Still with me? 
 
The cars are then divided into two groups for the "Duel" 150s on Thursday. These are 150-mile qualifying races that determine the final starting linueup.  The 500's last four entrants are the top two drivers in each race who failed to qualify on Sunday. 
 
The 2007 150s bring with them the possibility of disaster, as each race this year features 30 (and 31) cars.  The restrictor-plate races lend themselves to big wrecks, because the cars are more evenly matched and tend to form large packs while jockeying for position at 185 miles-per-hour. One wrong move from someone desperate to qualify could destroy a number of race cars—and put their drivers in a more precarious position for the early part of the 500.
 
Here's how it all shakes out in the end:  Start with a 43-car field. Subtract the 35 drivers who are guaranteed starting spots and the past champion—that leaves seven spots. Three of those are give away during the Sunday qualifying, and the last four are handed out in the Duel 150s. 
 
The bottom line?
 
If he can get himself in position, even the 72-year-old Hylton could qualify for The Great American Race.
 
Now there's a car for Viagra to sponsor.
 
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