In recent seasons, qualifying sessions for NASCAR had lost much of their luster.
The simple quest of determining which driver could post the fastest one-lap speed and lead the field of the race once drew crowds of thousands to tracks.
For many reasons – including economics, the length of the sessions and the ability of drivers to win from virtually any position in the field – interest in traditional qualifying waned.
Then NASCAR implemented its new knockout qualifying procedures to start the 2014 season. The Nationwide and Truck series began using the new two- or three-round format to determine the pole winner for their respective season openers at Daytona.
The Sprint Cup Series stuck to its more traditional qualifying procedures for the Daytona 500, bringing us to Saturday’s 1 p.m. ET qualifying session at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway – the first on a superspeedway this season.
The knockout sessions, where all teams compete against each other in timed sessions, has been an overwhelming success among competitors, fans in the stands and on TV so far this season.
This weekend, the best may be yet to come.
“I think it’s going to be awesome,” said Kyle Busch, who won the spring Talladega Cup race in 2008. “I think it’s going to be some of the most fun sessions we get to have.
“I think you’re going to have guys that try to get in a line of two, three, four cars, and then try to chase down the pack to see how fast they can get going and what kind of laps they’ll run.
“Talladega is going to be a whole pack of cars trying to figure it all out, so there’s going to be some interesting moments there.”
For that reason, Fox Sports has decided to air Saturday’s session live on network TV, moving it from Fox Sports 2. It’s the first time the network has broadcast qualifying live outside of the Daytona 500.
“Talladega is famous for four-wide racing in all our racing events,” speedway chairman Grant Lynch said. “Now fans can get ready for it in qualifying.”
At Talladega this weekend, the new format will pit drivers against each other in three segments. The first is 25 minutes long, then the top 24 move to the second round, which is 10 minutes long. After that, the top 12 move to a final five-minute session to determine the pole winner.
Like in the racing at Daytona and Talladega, in the qualifying session, teams are allowed to draft with one another to post faster speeds. The result is the possibility of several mini-versions of Sunday’s 500-mile Aaron’s 499 race.
“It is going to be extreme – you can’t predict it. It’s just going to be out of control, in a good way,” said six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “There could be some wrecks because there’s going to be a lot of cars out there.”
Since drivers have shown you can win from virtually any starting position, some have proposed the idea of perhaps sitting out what could easily become a wild event.
“I thought about just going home and starting in the back,” Kevin Harvick said jokingly.
“It will be interesting and it’s just kind of a crap shoot just like the race, but it will be exciting for sure. It will definitely be better than watching 3 1/2 hours of one car going around the race track, I promise you that.”