For the first time since the 2017 season finale at Kansas Speedway, an ARCA Menards Series event will have drivers who do not qualify for the race.
Fifty drivers are currently entered for the 2024 season opener at Daytona International Speedway. It will be the first time that an ARCA event has seen DNQs since 2017.
“It’s fantastic,” ARCA Communications Manager Charles Krall tells Frontstretch. “It’s 20% more than we had last year. It’s the result of a lot of hard work on behalf of our competition team.
“It’s going to be an intense couple of days. We have to do our job to make sure everybody gets the same opportunity to hit the racetrack for practice and get out to get their qualifying time set. It’s fantastic to have 50 cars entered.”
The ARCA Daytona race has a unique qualifying procedure, though. It uses group qualifying where each driver, as a member of a group, has a few minutes, usually four or five, to run laps to achieve their best time.
Of the 40-car field, the top 34 make the race on speed. The next three positions are set via 2023 owner’s points. Starting spots 38 and 39 are set for the next two highest entries on the Golden A plan, the highest placement on the ARCA start money program. The final spot is reserved for a past champion, or then if no past champion, the highest Golden A, likewise the highest in owner’s points.
With 50 entrants, 2023 owner’s points will make a difference. Like NASCAR, there are owner’s points transfers over the offseason.
Willie Mullins was one of the team owners who bought owner points over the offseason. The owner/driver will attempt his ninth Daytona start, and to boost his odds of making the field, he bought Cody Coughlin’s No. 72 owner points.
“Previously, you didn’t need to go to Daytona worrying about that,” Mullins says. “It’s been since 2017 that we’ve had to worry about positioning ourselves. So this year those are becoming valuable. There are a couple of teams that have moved around to make sure they’re in, we’re proud to be a part of that and this is a chess match before you even get to the track.
“This is the real deal. You have to be there and be on your game. Your car has to unload at 110%, you cannot have mechanical issues, you cannot have parts falling off this thing, you got to be ready to put down a lap.”
Steve Lewis’ No. 62 is 42nd in the provisional chart, so he must qualify on speed to make the race.
“We’ll just have to get top 34 on time to be locked in basically so you have to beat 16 cars to be safe,” he says. “It’s group qualifying, so you just hope you have a good group and everybody’s on the same page with getting as many cars together. Just hope we can stay in the draft during qualifying and see what happens. I mean, you never know what can happen there with group qualifying. …
“Car-wise, I feel like we brought good speed to Daytona last year. Daytona was our first time and we hung back for a while. When we needed to go at the end, I felt like we were able to and we were capable of running up front. That showed at Talladega Superspeedway too even though we had some electrical issues. When I got back out there, even though we were 16-17 laps down, I was able to run at the tail end of the lead pack. So that says a lot about our car, and that gave us some confidence. Even though we were 16-17 laps down, we made some changes from Daytona to see if they worked, and they did.”
Lewis made his series debut in 2023 at Daytona, followed by Talladega. Even though he ran only two races, he gained valuable insight for his planned three-race 2024 slate.
“Just something to have some notes on, just experience on a racetrack like that,” Lewis says. “I never had any experience on anything that big and I do not have that much asphalt experience. Going from a Northeastern modified, one year gives us notes, understanding the tech process at the beginning, that’s a long six-hour process. Just understanding what we got to do there, it should be a lot quicker just because of our experience and knowing what to look for and what they are expecting.”
Lewis’ eyes in the sky atop the spotter stand will be Reed Sorenson, who has starts in all three NASCAR national series himself.
Mullins is prepared for a good run at Daytona, even with the added pressure of qualifying.
“Being a veteran in the series, we still have our nerves because issues can happen, things can come up, but we’re confident in the car that we’re bringing to the track so there’s a 50/50 split in nerves and confidence,” he says. “We are going to be good.
“It’s great for the series. I’m proud of the series for having 50 cars at Daytona, so we are also proud to be a part of the ARCA series and its upswing. This is a premier series, so there should be cars that go home. There’s going to be guys that aren’t prepared or guys that have bad luck who are going to go home, and that’s a part of being in a premier racing series. Hopefully we make it, but we have as big of a chance as anyone who comes through the gate.”
Mullins placed 21st overall on the leaderboard in the ARCA preseason test at Daytona in January. While he was not in the top 10 in speed, his on-track time was key in preparation for the 80-lap season opener.
“I feel that if you weren’t at the Daytona test, you’re going to look at some of those cars, which aren’t locked in on a provisional, that are going to go home,” he adds. “The test is 1,000% important, because we even found issues with the car that we’re bringing, and we’ve been working on those issues since we got home. So the test is where you find the speed, because we only have 45 minutes of practice when we get down there Friday.”
But with so many entries, why does ARCA use its current qualifying format for Daytona compared to single-car qualifying? Richmond Racing team owner David Richmond and Costner Weaver Motorsports crew chief Darrell Phillips both advocated, in an ARCA Racing Series Facebook post comments section, for the series to use single-car qualifying.
One reason the series uses its group qualifying format is time. If each car ran a single lap, including its warmup lap, it would take at least two or three minutes per car. For 50 cars, that’s at least two hours. The season-opening race weekend does not have that much free time.
“There’s a reason we use it and it’s because we think that’s how to do it,” Krall explains. “It does not make any sense for our teams, who are already strapped budgetarily, to spend extra money to develop a setup to go fast for two laps when they will never do that in the race. So that’s partly where that comes from.
“And secondarily, we do not set the groups. It’s all done on a random draw. And we do not control what happens once those groups are set. On Friday night, you could talk to the other people who are in that group and you can come up with a plan. To us, it is the best way to set your speed. What you do with it is up to you.”
Mullins agreed, though not wholeheartedly.
“Very mixed feelings,” he says. “It can be good. But out of those eight starts, I think we have gotten torn up three times. In group qualifying last year we had a racecar that lost a clutch. It went through the front of the Venturini Motorsports car and oiled the whole track down. We — me and Brayton Laster — were the only two drivers who got through it. I’ve had the quarter panel get ripped off the car, I’ve had us wrecked out in the grass coming off pit road and ARCA needs to look at it.
“It should get the whole group rolling with the pace car out into turns 1 and 2, then drop the pace car off in the backstraightaway and let us go, because they don’t let us practice rolling out wide open out of pit road like they want us to do in qualifying. So I think there needs to be a little bit of attention there. For cost savings, group qualifying is the best.”
Of his eight starts, Mullins has four top-10 starts but also three outside the top 20. He says he does not have a magical formula for a successful qualifying run.
“We’ve tried everything,” he notes. “We’ve tried staying back, we tried staying with everybody tight, and honestly it is all about the group that you are in. So every kind of strategy will play out during the practice and qualifying, so you will have to find out what group you are in to see what you need to get towards the front of qualifying. You’ve got to talk with your group, because one year we didn’t talk to everybody and we weren’t on the same page, and it screwed up the whole group.”
Daytona is not the only ARCA race with a large field size expected. The second race, at Phoenix Raceway, is a combination race with the ARCA Menards Series West, and at least 30 drivers have competed in those last three ARCA races.
Talladega is also expected to have a large count car, potentially more than 40. The last four ARCA races there have not had a qualifying session. Instead, the field was set via the previous year’s owner points. Series officials have not yet set the starting lineup procedure for Talladega in 2024.
The Daytona qualifying format is unique, but at the end of the day, it is the same objective, according to Krall.
“Being one of those top 34 teams eliminates having to do a lot of that math and having to worry about it,” he says. “When you do not have a solid foundation to fall back on from 2023, the idea is you want to go fast.”
About the author
Mark Kristl joined Frontstretch at the beginning of the 2019 NASCAR season. He is the site's ARCA Menards Series editor. Kristl is also an Eagle Scout and a proud University of Dayton alum.
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