February 16, 2012
By Nicholas Schwartz
In just one week, the 2012 NASCAR season will be in full swing, kicked off by one of the best events of the year -- the Gatorade Duel at Daytona.
The Daytona 500 is widely regarded as the one of the best races -- and racing experiences -- each and every year. It’s the Super Bowl of racing, and it’s certainly a mainstay in my own personal holy trinity of races, along with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monte Carlo Gran Prix.
But as with those races, the Daytona 500 is so much more than what the masses of fans see on Sunday. It’s the culmination of Speedweeks, a showcase of racing that does away with the banality of normal qualifying and adds a great deal of excitement to a normally dry exercise.
Rather than resort to the usual practice of Friday qualifying sessions where the entire field is set by order of speed, the Daytona 500 sets the majority of its field with the results of two 150 mile races -- now called the Gatorade Duel -- meaning drivers have to fight their way into the starting grid.
As less and less fans have been attending qualifying sessions, NASCAR is losing a potential source of revenue, it might be time to expand the concept of Speedweeks to the entire NASCAR schedule. Be honest, when was the last time you watched qualifying on television, from start to finish? It’s just not that exciting until you get to the final 10 or 15 drivers, and even the commentators in the booth struggle to fill the airtime with meaningful chatter.
That’s not the case with the 150-mile dashes at Daytona. Even though the fastest car in the field usually doesn’t vie for the win, the competition is routinely thrilling. The races may be a tad too long, but there are very few negatives to be taken away from the event.
For the teams involved, the added emphasis on a race setup makes for better racing come Sunday. Track time is precious every weekend with such limited practices, and often times we see lower-level teams focus solely on a qualifying setup just to make the show, only to be behind the curve by Sunday.
So instead of wasting nearly everyone’s time on a 3-hour series of 2-lap runs, why not take a cue from dirt tracks across the country and set the race order via a few 30 or 40-lap heats, depending on the track.
You might not feel compelled to watch qualifying currently, but if your favorite driver has to navigate a pack of 20 cars to ensure a top-10 starting position, the viewership of qualifying would skyrocket.
Currently, the Gatorade Duel is the largest-attended sporting event in the United States not held on a weekend. Seems like a good model to follow.
Of course, this couldn’t work at some tracks, like Sonoma or Watkins Glen, but would be perfect for nearly every other venue and add a new element of strategy to the mix. With the threat of sustaining damage at short tracks, would drivers take it easy and stay near the back of the pack, thus sacrificing starting position for less work in the garage before the race? It would be fascinating to see.
Qualifying, in its current state, is likely here to stay for the long run, but as NASCAR has been quick to change fundamental aspects of its sport in the past, I’ll keep hoping that qualifying is the next issue up for consideration.
If you would like to learn more about Nicholas, please check out his web site at Sports By Schwartz. Nicholas is a Managing editor and sportswriter for The Duke Chronicle at Duke University.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.