There’s something about February at Daytona International Speedway mixed with the word “qualifying” that feels right. Feels inseparable. And that feeling is almost exclusively connected to the NASCAR Cup Series and the Daytona 500.
But sadly, the days of 30+ car fields in duel races to determine which drivers are going home and which drivers are competing in the “Great American Race” are long gone.
It would be a major accomplishment if NASCAR could reach a point where 50 cars are consistently attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500. Since 2011, no more than six cars have been sent home after failing to race into the Daytona 500. Conversely, in the Xfinity Series since 2011, seven or more have failed to qualify for the Xfinity Series 300-mile race five times.
That number would have been six if Mother Nature didn’t rain on the parade in 2021. So instead of nine drivers being sent packing last February, only five were.
These high car count entry lists raise a question as to whether NASCAR is missing an opportunity for added track activity with the Xfinity Series, and not just at Daytona?
In no way am I suggesting that the Xfinity Series adopt a qualifying race format for determining their starting lineup in the season-opening race. That has financial disaster written all over it. But what if there was a second chance to make the 300-mile Saturday show?
Since 2001, an average of 6.3 teams have failed to make the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona. For comparison’s sake, since 2001, the Cup Series has sent an average of 6.8 cars home. NASCAR is all in on two-round qualifying and giving the top-10 qualifiers a second opportunity at the pole. What if you swung that around to the other end of the grid?
After the entire field has made their initial qualifying run, you’ll know a few things: 1) who are the 10 drivers going for the pole? 2) who is locked in via speed? 3) Who will be in the two-row showdown. What’s the two-row showdown? I’ll tell you.
The two-row showdown is a third round of Xfinity Series qualifying, and admittedly, I’m ripping this off from the Indianapolis 500. Bump day makes qualifying for that race so much more entertaining, especially when several cars are involved. Under the two-row showdown format, rows 1-17 (positions 1-34) are set in the first two qualifying rounds but throws 18 and 19 (positions 35-38) are set by a third, last-chance round of qualifying.
It’s self-explanatory–this is another layer to qualifying built around giving a second chance to teams and drivers who missed the mark during their first attempt and more track time for fans. Because there came a point in qualifying for Saturday’s Beef It’s What’s For Dinner 300 that last-place qualifier Tim Viens knew he wasn’t going to make the show before the session had concluded, as did Harrison Rhodes, Ronnie Bassett Jr., and others.
It’s crucial when you look at the Xfinity Series field as the series is shaping up to send multiple cars home weekly this season potentially. Forty-four cars are on the entry list for Auto Club Speedway for a 38-car field. Why not reward the teams who make the trip to each track – no matter the distance – a chance to redeem their qualifying effort?
The two-row showdown would work just like round two of qualifying for the 10 drivers looking to win the pole. Every driver 35th or worse gets another lap, and therefore any provisionals used wouldn’t take effect until after the two-row showdown finishes. I’m aware provisionals throw a wrench into things, but the objective is to avoid the two-row showdown by qualifying better than 35th in round one. That way, a driver locks him or herself into the race, and no provisional would be required to make the race.
Let’s go ahead and add a layer to the two-row showdown. There could be a bonus for any and each driver and team who in the first round of qualifying was 39th or worse. If they qualify inside the top four in the two-row showdown, Goodyear awards them the cash value of a brand new set of sticker Goodyear tires. Teams can take that money and run or turn around and buy a brand new set of tires for the following race. Drivers who would then use a provisional to make the race would not be awarded this bonus.
With the cost of a brand new set of tires being $2,100, if all four positions in the two-row showdown each week are filled by drivers who qualified 39th or worse initially, that’s a $277,200 commitment from Goodyear. I highly doubt that would happen, but I don’t mind spending other people’s money. Plus, this bonus would have similarities to former in-season NASCAR awards or challenges, like the Unocal 76 Challenge.
Why am I putting so much emphasis on the last two rows of the Xfinity Series?
Because the Xfinity Series is more often than not sending cars home, usually several, compared to the Cup Series. Will the Next Gen Cup Series car lead to the return of full 40-car fields in the Cup Series? Or will races other than the crown jewel events on the calendar draw more than 40 entries? That’s yet to be determined.
But the Xfinity Series field looks to be more alive and robust than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Last season six races included qualifying, and in those six races, no fewer than six cars failed to make the 36-car field. In 2022, NASCAR has increased the field to a maximum of 38 cars by popular demand.
Now I’ll bring this two-row showdown back down to Earth. As mentioned before, NASCAR and track operators are looking for new ways to add value to tickets, and they need to look beyond the Cup Series. If entry lists throughout 2022 continue to be more than 43 cars, maybe something like the two-row showdown can be explored as a possible addition to track activities at Daytona in February 2023.
Imagine if Chase Elliott were to run an additional entry for JR Motorsports next year at Daytona. Something goes wrong, and he finds himself on the outside looking in. He and his team wouldn’t have a provisional to use to bump themselves into the field.
Or what if Austin Hill or A.J. Allmendinger has issues in round one, and now they are outside the top 38. Having a two-row showdown allows for teams, big or small, a second opportunity to make the field. That is added entertainment value for fans at home and ticket holders at the track. After all, racing is a subcategory of sport, and sport is a subcategory of entertainment.
The idea of a row-row showdown certainly goes against tradition, but traditional race weekends and formats are long gone. Just look at how race weekends will flow throughout 2022 in all three national NASCAR divisions. There are fewer opportunities to practice, let alone test your car today than 20 years ago. Adding a last chance qualifier-esque layer to qualifying doesn’t seem like a stretch to me, especially when eight or more cars are participating on average.
So, if you are looking for a more throwback style of NASCAR racing, watch the Xfinity Series this season. The numbers are in the middle of the doors, the cars have five lug nuts, and they even still use carburetors. Just being absent of charters gives Xfinity qualifying sessions a throwback feel. If you’re like me, you’ll be hoping for car counts on the entry lists to continue to push the 45-car count every week so that a new flavor may be added to qualifying in the future.
About the author
Josh Roller is a 2019 graduate of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI in Indianapolis. While in school, he covered the 2018 Indianapolis 500 and the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship. He was an extern for INDYCAR in 2019 and interned with Charlotte Motor Speedway's Communications Department in 2020. Besides writing the Xfinity Breakdown for Frontstretch, he also does a weekly podcast with a friend he met at the 2018 Indy 500, Rob Peeters, called the Racing with Rob and Roller podcast.
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