(SportsNetwork.com) - When NASCAR scrapped single-car qualifying runs and implemented its group qualifying format for the Daytona 500, it had hoped the format would be appealing to drivers and teams.
In fact, Sunday's qualifying for the Daytona 500 turned out to be a fiasco, and NASCAR is now having to deal with the criticism of its new format. Almost every driver had some sort of complaint about qualifying, including pole winner Jeff Gordon, who will make his 23rd and final appearance in NASCAR's most prestigious race of the season on Feb. 22.
The traditional format for the Daytona 500 included each car making a single two-lap attempt around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.
Starting last year, NASCAR began using knockout-style qualifying for all three of its national touring series (Sprint Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck). NASCAR used the revised qualifying format in Sprint Cup for the first time at Phoenix International Raceway, the weekend after the 2014 Daytona 500, which still had single-car qualifying runs.
NASCAR utilized the group qualifying format for last October's restrictor- plate race at Talladega Superspeedway. Qualifying there was chaotic and confusing, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. failing to qualify and championship Chase drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Gordon having to take a provisional (owner points) position in the starting field.
So naturally, drivers were very concerned and stressed out about this year's Daytona 500 qualifying, unlike in years past.
With 25 cars running in the first group during the opening round of Daytona 500 qualifying, several drivers were involved in an accident heading into turn 1 with a little more than a minute left in the five-minute round. Reed Sorenson attempted to block Clint Bowyer, but both drivers made contact and spun out before hitting the wall. Bobby Labonte, J.J. Yeley and Hamlin were among those caught up in the accident.
It had Bowyer furious not only with Sorenson for his maneuver but also with NASCAR for revising Daytona 500 qualifying. Bowyer referred to the format as "idiotic."
"We need to be focused on qualifying and who is going to sit on the pole for the biggest race of the year and the front row just like we always have," Bowyer said. "There's no reason to be putting a show on and trying to make something out of something that doesn't need to be."
Those competitors in the first group were not able to complete another qualifying lap following the multi-car accident.
Many drivers, especially those who were eliminated from qualifying after the first of three rounds, were just as frustrated as Bowyer about the format.
"The frustrating part is dealing with this whole system which makes no sense whatsoever," said Ryan Newman, who finished second in the point standings last year and won the 2008 Daytona 500. "It's hard to stand behind NASCAR when everybody I talk to up and down pit road doesn't understand why we're doing this. Maybe I need to be sat down and educated a little bit."
Denny Hamlin used the word "mayhem" to label qualifying, while Tony Stewart described it as "a complete embarrassment for our series" when he expressed his opinion on his Twitter account.
Gordon, a four-time series champion and three-time winner of the Daytona 500, also shared his views of qualifying. It's the second time Gordon has earned the pole for this race. He started on the pole and won the Daytona 500 in 1999.
"This format is crazy and chaotic, but it can be extremely rewarding when you have a day like we had," Gordon said.
As bizarre as this year's Daytona 500 qualifying seemed, it was a waiting game on pit road in each of the three rounds to see who would go on track first and lead the pack of cars. In the final round, four minutes ticked off before Martin Truex Jr. was the first of the 12-driver field to go out. Only one qualifying lap was made during that segment. Truex finished last in the field for the last round, while Gordon's lap at 201.293 mph (44.711 seconds) gave him the pole.
Gordon admitted that qualifying for this year's Daytona 500 was indeed stressful.
"There's so much going on in your mind," he said. "It's literally like playing chess at 200 miles an hour. It's pretty crazy."
NASCAR will certainly get a lot of feedback from drivers and teams on the qualifying format. But was the sanctioning body pleased with how qualifying unfolded?
"Jeff Gordon on the pole, certainly his last Daytona 500, is great, but seeing the incident that took place (during the first round in qualifying) is not," NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O'Donnell said during a press conference to address the qualifying issues. "Overall, I think we're happy about the excitement of the qualifying session, but we've got to look at if there's adjustments we can make to continue to improve that. We're going to do that."
It's obvious that the format for this year's Daytona 500 qualifying had its flaws, but as it has done so many times in the past, NASCAR will figure away to resolve the issue and have a better format in place for the 2016 race.