Race Weekend Central

*DNP* Deepdive: The Qualfiying Session that Broke NASCAR

*Visual Notes will be between the two stars and will not be in the script*
*Youtube Intro* *I’m Jared Haas from Frontstretch.com and let’s deep dive into some NASCAR.*

NASCAR qualifying is the two-lap dance around the race track to determine where drivers start the race. While some qualifying results can be predictable, there was one qualifying session that broke NASCAR. Qualifying can be the race within the race for some drivers and that was the case during qualifying for the 2007 UAW Ford 500, providing results like no other race seen before.

Starting in the 2005 season, the top 35 rule was implemented in NASCAR so that drivers inside the top 35 in owner’s points would qualify, no matter how slow. Drivers on the outside would have to qualify for the race. Usually, drivers that were lower in points did not out-qualify the top cars. Even in 2007 with the larger field size, there weren’t a lot of shocking results during qualifying. 2007 was an interesting year as it was a hybrid season that featured the Car of Tomorrow, used mainly at short tracks and road courses. However, the CoT also made its superspeedway debut at Talladega in October.

*Lineup of the 2007 UAW Ford 500 scrolling across*
Notice something in the lineup with the top qualifying spots? All these drivers were outside the top 35, like Dave Blaney and John Andretti. While these drivers outperformed many star drivers, Ken Schrader, who was in 35th owner’s points, was the slowest driver in the qualifying session. As the COT had surprises under its wing, one of the biggest instabilities was its trimmed-out speed.

When you think of threats for the pole, Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing may come to mind. For this qualifying, the fastest two teams were Bill Davis Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing. For the latter, 2007 had a lot of growing pains. Michael Waltrip Racing’s first season had all three drivers make the race seven out of the 36 races. Talladega was one of those races. 2007 was a dismal year for Waltrip. At Daytona, Waltrip was penalized for jet fuel found in his fuel tank in his No. 55 car. For the first third of the season, Gray Gaulding, Aaron Fike and even I had more points than Michael Waltrip in 2007. Yet this qualifying session was a bright spot for MWR to a rather dim season. Unfortunately, the race would be another black eye for the team as all three MWR cars crashed out. For others, 2007 was a forgettable season as well.

AJ Allmendinger’s 2007 season was one of the most forgettable seasons of his career. Tapped to drive the second Red Bull Racing car, Allmendinger’s average finish was comparable to Quinn Houff in 2020 with a 31st-place finish. For a first-year team and driver, qualifying was rough as the team failed to qualify for over half of the races. At Talladega, Allmendinger out-qualified 42 other cars, but that did not matter. All that mattered to Allmendinger was that he was slower than eight other guys that he trying to outperform. As David Reutimann would put it, missing a race is one of the most sickening feelings in the world. How would the system change if NASCAR did not switch to the Top 35 rule?

The race dynamic would be different with an old qualifying system. For example, Kevin Lepage, who was the slowest among the go-or-go homers, would still make the race as he was 36th fastest. Drivers were almost nine seconds slower than their practice speeds during the weekend. For comparison, practice and qualifying speeds for the 2021 Daytona 500 were separated by about two seconds. If the faster drivers who were lower in points were in the show, that would knock out other drivers higher in points from the show.

If the 2007 qualifying session had five provisionals after the fastest 38 cars, all provisional spots would be filled up with Chase drivers like Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Drivers like David Ragan, Jamie McMurray and Aric Almirola, who sat 14th in owner’s points standings with the No. 01 car, would fail to qualify. McMurray and Almirola failing to qualify would be historic on two fronts. McMurray, who won the last restrictor-plate race at Daytona in July, would fail to qualify for a race after winning a race in the same season. The last time that had happened was in 1995 with Kyle Petty and Ward Burton. It did happen more recently with Brad Keselowski in 2009 with Phoenix Racing.

With Almirola, he would be one of the highest cars in owner’s points to fail to qualify. Full-time teams have failed to qualify in the past before, with Steve Park in 2003 and Scott Wimmer in 2004, but the highest in owner’s points that they were in was 28th. Almirola failing to qualify would be even bigger than those two drivers combined.

The closest case would be former champion Darrell Waltrip failing to qualify at the second Charlotte race in 1997. Great qualifying performances with part-time teams pushed some full-time teams to provisional land. Waltrip was sitting near the top 20 in owner’s points behind the No. 25 Rick Hendrick car. Even though Waltrip was a past champion, Terry Labonte captured the final spot on the grid because he was the most recent champion.

Although this history nugget about McMurray and Almirola never happened, the 2007 qualifying session at Talladega still changed history.

The go-or-go homers did not fare well in the race, as Dave Blaney was the only such driver to score a top-20 finish. The CoT superspeedway qualifying package continued to haunt Boris Said who missed the 2007 Talladega race after posting the 10th fastest lap at Talladega. Additionally, Said was ninth fastest in qualifying for the 2008 Daytona 500 but was not fast enough to secure a spot on speed. That race kept Said from potentially being a superspeedway contender. Said last competed on a superspeedway in 2010.

While Said struggled to be fast enough to qualify for these races, MWR shook off its 2007 blues.

CoT qualifying gave much-needed confidence to MWR to become a powerhouse team. From failing to qualify for the majority to the races, MWR slowly turned around in 2008 with an outside pole with Michael Waltrip. Even with Dale Jarrett retiring, the team gradually qualified for races and posted decent finishes. This resurgence of MWR even helped one new team with the owner’s points, but that is for another deep dive. Looking back retroactively, MWR has impacted many areas in NASCAR from the simple chrome wheels to Spingate. MWR can thank NASCAR’s Research & Development of the CoT at Superspeedways for its rise.

The 2007 UAW-Ford 500 shook up the results of the expected qualifying and even the sport as we know it today.

*Thank you very much for watching. For the best seat at the track and best view on the web, watch another video, subscribe, or visit us at Frontstretch.com*

About the author

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Jared Haas joined the Frontstretch staff in May 2020. During his time at Frontstretch, Jared has grown the Frontstretch YouTube channel from less than 200 subscribers to well over 23,000 subscribers.

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