Jeff Gordon winning the pole for the Daytona 500 almost erased NASCAR’s blunder –almost.
In his final full-time season, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion starts the sport’s biggest race from the front row. The storybook feel was present, yet it couldn’t overshadow the confusion and anger boiling in many drivers’ veins.
Sunday’s qualifying session at Daytona International Speedway only sets the front row for the Daytona 500. The remaining drivers find their spots on Thursday when two 150-lap races go underway. Traditionally, single-car runs would determine the first two positions and the lineup for each Budweiser Duel race. This year is different with NASCAR adopting the ‘knockout’ qualifying format for deciding the slots.
Knockout qualifying debuted last season yet wasn’t run at Daytona or the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway, its fellow restrictor plate track. The fall race at the Alabama racetrack, however, proved drivers, fans, and media that the format and restrictor plate tracks didn’t mix.
Despite this, the sport decided to try it again in an attempt to ramp up the once mundane session.
The field split into two groups for the first and second rounds of qualifying, eliminating drivers along the way. Those remaining came together for the third and final session. Each round lasted five minutes.
As the first group ventured onto the track to log times, only a few minutes passed before chaos ensued. Reed Sorenson and Clint Bowyer collided and tore up their machines. Sorenson –who only had one car for Daytona—blocked Bowyer and ended up ruining both their days.
The red flag waved, and it quickly sunk in that this format was dangerous for drivers and their teams’ wallets. The driver of the No. 15 decided to express these concerns to NASCAR on FOX reporter Jamie Little. (Click HERE for the YouTube video of Bowyer’s rant. There is cursing in the video’s title.)
“It’s idiotic to be out here doing this anyway. There’s no sense in being able to try to put on some cute show for whatever the hell this is.”
He also added, “But it ain’t [Sorenson’s] fault. It’s NASCAR fault for putting us out in the middle of this crap for nothing.”
Once the words were said, other drivers began voicing their opinions. Richard Childress Racing driver Ryan Newman said on FOX, “It’s hard to stand by NASCAR when no one on pit road understands why we’re doing this.”
Kurt Busch compared the format to using bingo balls while team owner Tony Stewart vented on Twitter. Under his official handle @tonystewart, the three-time NSCS champion noted, “Today use to be about showcasing the hard work from the teams over the winter. Now it [sic] a complete embarrassment for our series.”
Meanwhile, the final round produced a product that was script-worthy; Jeff Gordon will start first in his final Daytona 500, with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in second.
Though the end was magical, Sunday’s qualifying session was lackluster.
STARTING POSITIONS IN THE BUDWEISER DUELS
Duel One: Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray, Johnny Sauter, Trevor Bayne, Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, JJ Yeley, Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Casey Mears, Michael Annett, Kyle Larson, Michael McDowell, Clint Bowyer, Justin Marks, Cole Whitt, Landon Cassil, and Ron Hornaday, Jr.
Duel Two: Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Ty Dillon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Martin Truex, Jr., Greg Biffle, Sam Hornish, Jr., Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Ryan Blaney, Michael Waltrip, Bobby Labonte, Alex Bowman, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick, Brian Scott, Justin Allgaier, David Gilliland, Jeb Burton, Reed Sorenson, David Ragan, Josh Wise, and Mike Wallace.