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How Is NASCAR Qualifying Order Determined?

NASCAR, like many motorsports, consists of several stages. Usually there is a practice day, where the cars can take to the track to gauge the conditions and get a feel for the venue. But after that and before the race comes the qualifying stage, which determines the race starting order.

NASCAR qualifying order is determined in different ways depending on the race. The order that the cars go out to set their qualifying time is usually decided by a random draw, and for most races the fastest lap times set will determine the starting order for the race.

Below, we will go into more detail about each individual case where there are some differences, and we will also discuss the actual procedure that determines the race starting grid. NASCAR qualifying may seem a bit obscure at first, but once you know how it works, it can seem more straightforward.

The Standard NASCAR Qualifying Procedure

Different Formats

In the past, many formats have been used in NASCAR to determine the starting grid of the race. Qualifying is very common in motorsports, as it is a way to set the grid fairly, based on the performance of the cars. The idea is to set the grid in the fairest way that weekend, as performance for each team will vary from race to race.

In the past, NASCAR has used several systems for the qualifying procedure, with the current being the single car qualifying system. But recently the sport used a system similar to Formula 1, where there were several knockout stages with the slowest drivers in each session being eliminated and thus placed further towards the back of the grid.

Be The Fastest

Regardless of which system has been used, the main goal is to set fast lap times. The faster you go, the higher up the starting grid you will place. The fastest cars at the front, the slowest at the rear. This is the simple version, but within this there are a few quirks and rules that make it seem a little bit more complex, so let’s start with the qualifying procedure for the longer oval tracks.

Qualifying For Oval Races

Longer Tracks

For the oval tracks longer than 1.25 miles, the rules below apply. We will discuss road courses in a moment, as they use a different qualifying system. These longer tracks use a single car qualifying system, with the cars going out onto the track one at a time and trying to set a fast-timed lap. They will have one lap to do this, so they need to make it count.

They will also usually start from the pit road, which means they have less than one full lap to get up to speed. This makes the qualifying runs short and sweet, and it is a quick way to determine who is the fastest on the track that day when it matters most. The order which the cars go out is determined by a random draw, which aims to make things as fair as possible.

Random Draw

This random draw has some serious implications, as the track conditions will evolve over the course of the day. Those out first will usually have a hotter track temperature to deal with, which can cause the cars to lose some grip and thus go slower. The inverse is true for those going out later on the cooler track, as they might manage faster times.

There is a fine line between too hot and too cold however, and the differences for the sake of a single qualifying lap can be minimal in many cases. But the point of the random draw is to make sure these differences are distributed fairly. The random draw is used for several other qualifying procedures within NASCAR for this very reason.

Shorter Tracks

For oval tracks shorter than 1.25 miles, a similar system is used, but cars have two laps to get the best time possible. This means they have essentially an almost-full warm up lap, and then two shots at setting their fastest time. Many will use their first hot lap to set them up in the optimal way for their second timed lap, where they will actually try to set their fastest time.

This requires some strategy, as it is often worth it to throw away the first timed lap in an effort to better set the car up for the second one. The driver may take more extreme racing lines to get more heat into the tires for example to give them better grip, and to ensure they get as much of a run up to the starting line as possible to get as much speed as they can for the lap that counts.

Qualifying For Road Circuits

Group Qualifying

The qualifying procedure for the road circuits in the NASCAR calendar is very different to that of the ovals. There are two rounds for these races, and the first lasts for 25 minutes. In this round, all 40 cars compete over the course of the 25-minute session to put in the fastest lap time they can. They can enter the track whenever they want (provided its safe) in order to set their times.

Then, after the 25 minutes are up, the fastest 12 drivers progress through to the second round. The drivers that don’t make it through set positions 13-40 depending on their lap times. The remaining 12 drivers then have a short break, before taking to the track for 10 final minutes. They can once again choose when to head out for their hot laps.

Two Rounds

This eliminates the random draw aspect of the other qualifying procedures, which means the drivers all want to go out as late as possible in order to make the most of the conditions and the use of slipstreams. This can make the group-style qualifying a bit of a mess, and in the past it has led to nobody in the second round being able to set a timed run as nobody wanted to go out first.

The Daytona 500

Its Own System

The last important case we will consider is the Daytona 500. This race has its own qualifying system, made up of two rounds of 150-lap races. The races have some restrictions when it comes to competing teams, involving the charter system which we will discuss below, but essentially the lineups are first determined by single car qualifying like the other races.

Then, the group is split in two, with the odd numbered positions from the single car qualifying session, determined by speed as usual, taking part in one race, and then the even numbered cars taking part in the other. These two races are carried out like normal races, and the finishing lineup decides the race starting positions for each group.

Odds & Evens

So, the resulting positions from the odd numbered race set the odd numbered positions on race day, and the same goes for the even numbers in the other race. The first two positions however are set by the two fastest cars from the single car qualifying session, regardless of where they finished in the duel races.

Then, the final two positions are set by the fastest two cars of non-charted teams that have not already qualified. This is in order to give newer or lower ranking teams a chance to compete in some way at the Daytona 500. This is the final type of qualifying used in NASCAR at the moment, and it is arguably the most confusing.

The NASCAR Provisions System

Chartered & Open Teams

The qualifying system is fairly simple as we have described above, but there are some provisions in place in order to benefit teams that normally do well and turn up to every race but have a bad day on qualifying day. There are 36 spots available for what are known as ‘charter teams’. These are teams that have turned up to every points race in the past three years.

Essentially, these are the teams that NASCAR thinks deserves the chance to qualify for races as they have showed their long-term commitment to the sport. There are then 4 spots for ‘open teams’, and these are teams that are not on the charter list. The charter list has 36 spots, due to the way that the system was created in 2016.

The Previous Race Counts

This means there are 40 spots filled, but there is more confusion in there too. The final 20 spots to go into the qualifying procedure, whichever it may be, are determined by the top 20 at the previousrace. This basically means the top 20 from each race are guaranteed to get a place in the next race, with the rest being decided by the charter and open system.

This is the part of the system that is most confusing, but it is not the most important part, so don’t worry if it doesn’t make too much sense right now. The important part is the random draw and the actual qualifying session itself (or sessions), as these are what determine the lineup for the main event on race day.

Other Series

There are other provisional rules in place in the Xfinity and Truck Series, such as the Past Champions rule that allows the final qualifying spot to be claimed by a past champion if he fails to qualify by speed. These rules come with their own sub-rules, and for the purpose of this article, we have decided to simply stick with those used in the Cup Series.

Final Thoughts

NASCAR qualifying can get quite tricky to understand at times, but the basic idea is that the sessions are used to determine the starting grid for the actual race. The order in which the cars go out to set lap times is usually determined by a random draw, but the way the drivers qualify, through single-car or group qualifying, will vary depending on the race.