By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Even at first glance, it's obvious that changes to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying format will add two important aspects to the process -- opportunity and suspense.
Nowhere will that be more in evidence than at Daytona International Speedway, where Cup teams will begin preparation for the Feb. 24 season-opening Daytona 500 this weekend.
The scrapping of the top-35 rule, which guaranteed starting spots in every Cup race to the top 35 cars in the owner standings, by definition, broadens the opportunity to make the field. In the case of Daytona, it also injects a level of suspense and excitement into the Budweiser Duel 150 qualifying races that's been minimized in the era of the top-35 rule.
For every Cup race this season, the 36 fastest cars will make the field. Rather than, say, 13 go-or-go-homers (non-exempt cars) competing for a maximum of eight starting spots, every team that takes to the track knows one thing. If you're among the 36 fastest, you're in the race. Period.
The next six positions -- provisional starting spots -- go to the top six cars in owner points that haven't qualified on speed. The 43rd position is reserved for a past champion not otherwise qualified, provided he participated in the Cup series during the previous season. If there's no past champion to fill the final spot, it goes to the seventh car in the owners' standings not otherwise qualified.
For the Daytona 500 and its unique qualifying format, here's what to watch:
As in the past, the front row will be locked in on pole day, Sunday, Feb. 17. After time trials, the starting positions of the fastest two cars will be set, on the pole and on the outside of the front row. The pole winner will lead odd-numbered qualifiers (positions 3, 5, 7, etc.) to the green flag in the first Duel on Feb. 21. The second-place car in time trials will pace the even-number qualifiers in the second Duel.
The top six qualifiers on Sunday are locked into the race on speed no matter what, but the starting position of the third-through-sixth-place qualifiers won't be determined until the Duels are run.
For the past eight seasons, with 35 cars locked in before they ever got to the race track, the functional purpose of the Duels was to set the starting order and to determine which two back markers from each race would ride shotgun on the field at the start of the Daytona 500.
This year, things have changed -- dramatically. The Duels will now determine not only the starting positions of the first 32 cars but also who actually makes the race. Finish in the top 15 in your Duel, and you're in the Daytona 500 -- simple as that.
Positions 33-36 are filled by the four fastest cars from time trials that 1) aren't on the front row and 2) don't transfer from the Duels. Positions 37-42 go to the top six cars in owner points not otherwise qualified. The final spot goes to a past champion or a seventh provisional starter, as with the general procedure for all races.
If the new format multiplies the suspense of the Duels from a fan's standpoint, it also will lead to some white knuckles inside the race cars. A major wreck in one of the Duels, one that involves a number of top drivers, could create havoc with the starting field.
For instance, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, whose cars were 13th and 16th, respectively, in 2012 owner points, have to be wary in the Duels, because in the case of an accident, provisionals may not save them.
Similarly, the new format places a huge premium on qualifying on Sunday. Matt Kenseth inherits a car at Joe Gibbs Racing that was 18th in owner points. Joey Logano, who left Gibbs for Penske Racing, climbs behind the wheel of a No. 22 Ford that was 21st in the owners' standings. Kenseth, at least, has a champion's provisional as insurance in the event of a disaster in the Duels. Logano does not.
The bottom line is that, if you're slow in qualifying, and you have a problem in the race, you could miss the Daytona 500 -- even if you're one of the sport's established stars.
So the addition of opportunity and suspense come at a price -- the loss of an important safety net.