FORT WORTH, Texas — The fans at Texas Motor Speedway won’t have any actual races to watch Saturday, but they’ll get a look at one of NASCAR’s newest creations designed to generate further interest.
The Sprint Cup Series’ new knockout-style qualifying makes its Texas debut at 2 p.m. Saturday. And the next time the Cup drivers come to Texas in November, this year’s tweaked Chase format will have fans buzzing.
It seems that every year, NASCAR is making significant rule and format changes to its top series.
But is NASCAR going too far, or are the changes bringing the sport closer to the fan-friendly product the organization hopes to put out for 36 races a year?
The Chase changes seem to come virtually every year, and the final word on this year’s updates won’t be known until the end of the season.
The new qualifying plan, however, is the interesting change.
In the past, qualifying has been a long line of cars taking the track one at a time, trying to post the fastest lap to earn the front starting spot.
As fans will see on Saturday afternoon, the new format is much more of a competitive event, with groups of cars on the track at the same time. The three-round qualifying session begins with a 25-minute round of open racing for all 43 cars.
The fastest 24 cars advance to the second round, a 10-minute period of racing. The 12 fastest cars move on to the finals, where they’ll have five minutes to post the best time to earn the pole.
“It’s a lot of changes, but I feel it’s all been positive so far,” said David Gilliland, driver of the No. 38 Ford. “I tell everybody, if I was gonna watch qualifying, I’d much rather watch it the way it is now than the way it was. It’s exciting, some drama, some things in the qualifying session you didn’t have before.”
Similar to the new qualifying format, the Chase will now feature eliminations, ultimately cutting down from 16 drivers to four, who will compete for the championship in the final race of the season.
Texas’ November race will be part of the third elimination round, meaning eight drivers will still be in the hunt for the title when they come to TMS in the fall.
But the most welcome change to the Chase has been the added emphasis on winning during the season. One win during the first 26 races virtually guarantees a driver of a spot in the Chase.
Of course, with six different drivers winning the first six races of the season, those spots are filling up fast.
Among the winless drivers is six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who says he isn’t feeling any pressure to win a race.
“I haven’t felt any pressure with the new format yet,” he said. “Maybe I’m naive or stupid or something else, but the season takes on so many different changes. We’ve had a few looks here recently at a victory, and I feel like it’s coming.
“It might become much more of a topic if the win column keeps growing like it has, without any repeat winners. If that’s the case, it’ll shoot my mindset completely apart. I firmly believe it’ll be very rare to have 16 different winners in 26 races, and points will still get somebody a berth into the first stage of the Chase.”