Knockout qualifying, practice set for NASCAR return in 2022

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR has been forced to conduct much of its race weekends without practice or qualifying. For 2022, NASCAR will return practices on a more regular basis and revive the concept of knockout qualifying, though in a new style. All Cup, Xfinity, and Camping World Truck Series races will have qualifying; in 2021, only eight such weekends had the session.

How qualifying is conducted will depend on the series and track type, but a recurring theme is splitting the field into groups.

On Cup ovals and road courses, the grid is divided into two groups simply called A and B, with the assignment being determined by the finishing order of the previous week’s race (odd-finishing cars in A, even in B). For ovals, cars will go out on their own and try to set a single fastest lap (two laps at Bristol, Dover, Martinsville, and Richmond), with the top five in each group advancing to the second and final round; the fastest of the ten wins the pole. For road courses, the first round will instead give drivers fifteen minutes to set a best time, while the second is ten minutes long.

Superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega) will not use groups, but the top ten will still move on to the final round. The Bristol Dirt Race will continue to have heat races.

In the Xfinity and Truck Series, superspeedways will use the same format as in Cup. Oval races will also do one-lap qualifying (two for the same tracks as Cup). Road courses alos follow the Cup model.

Practices will last fifteen minutes for much of the three series’ weekends. However, there are exceptions that give fifty-minute practices: the Daytona 500, Atlanta 1, Bristol Dirt, Gateway, Nashville, and Phoenix Championship Round for Cup; Daytona 1, Atlanta 1, Portland, Nashville, Phoenix Championship for Xfinity; and Daytona, Atlanta, Bristol Dirt, Knoxville, Sonoma, Mid-Ohio, Nashville, and Phoenix Championship for the Trucks.

“NASCAR is excited to return practice and qualifying to its race weekends,” said NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller. “We missed seeing cars and trucks on track all weekend long, and so did our fans. We worked closely with our broadcast partners, teams and race tracks to create an exciting, unique qualifying format, while keeping several of the efficiencies that helped our entire industry successfully navigate the pandemic.”

Knockout qualifying was first introduced in 2014, replacing the traditional single-car format with the best time starting on the pole. The previous knockout style saw multiple rounds in which cars qualified together in groups, with the top drivers in a certain range advancing to the next. This system is also used in other disciplines like Formula One. However, the caveat of qualifying in a group also hit various snags, especially depending on the aero package: the 2019 Auto Club race weekend saw Austin Dillon win the pole when he was the only driver in the second round to set a qualifying time as nobody wished to be the first car on track and thus get drafted. After the debacle, NASCAR returned to single-car qualifying but kept the knockout style.

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