NASCAR: Explaining the bizarre Daytona 500 qualifying format

Daytona 500, NASCAR (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Daytona 500, NASCAR (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images) /

NASCAR’s qualifying format for the Daytona 500 has drawn criticism after Ty Dillon finished 10 spots higher than Austin Cindric in the first Duel but failed to qualify.

This isn’t the first year that NASCAR has used the current qualifying format to set the 40-car field for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, but this year’s qualifying sessions drew more criticism than they had in years past.

As usual, the 36 chartered cars are locked into the field for Sunday afternoon’s 200-lap race around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) high-banked oval in Daytona Beach, Florida, leaving four open spots for the non-chartered cars.

With 44 cars on the entry list this year, there were eight drivers battling for those final four spots.

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Single-car qualifying, which sets the starting lineups for Thursday evening’s two 60-lap Bluegreen Vacations Duels as well as the front row for the Daytona 500 itself, leads things off on Wednesday evening.

The fastest two drivers of non-chartered cars lock into the Daytona 500. This year, those two drivers were JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ryan Preece and Front Row Motorsports’ David Ragan. They were eighth and 13th fastest, respectively, in single-car qualifying.

Here’s where things get a bit confusing — and where things have caused some controversy in 2021 in particular.

With eight non-chartered entries, each Duel race featured four non-chartered entries.

The first one featured Preece, Team Penske’s Austin Cindric, Gaunt Brothers Racing’s Ty Dillon and MBM Motorsports’ Timmy Hill.

The second one featured Ragan, Kaulig Racing’s Kaz Grala, MBM Motorsports’ Garrett Smithley and Beard Motorsports’ Noah Gragson.

The highest finishing driver of a non-chartered car in each Duel locks into the Daytona 500.

However, this also includes Preece and Ragan.

Yes — even though they had already locked into the Daytona 500 field on qualifying speed, they have the ability to effectively change the way they lock in to the race.

And that’s where things effectively become backwards.

So if, for example, Preece finishes as the top driver of a non-chartered car in his Duel, he locks in via the Duel. Despite having already locked himself in based on his qualifying speed, qualifying speed now isn’t how he is officially locked in.

Under this scenario, the third fastest qualifier would then lock in on qualifying speed, taking Preece’s spot. This year, the third fastest qualifier was Cindric.

A spot wouldn’t necessarily go to the second highest finisher of a non-chartered car in the Duel, even if that driver only finished behind the non-chartered car that had already been locked into the race.

This exact scenario played out in 2021.

In the first Duel, Preece beat the other drivers of the non-chartered cars. He finished in fifth place ahead of Dillon in sixth, Cindric in 16th and Hill in 19th.

So Preece, despite already being locked in on qualifying speed, now technically locked into the Daytona 500 thanks to his Duel performance, not based on his qualifying speed.

Dillon, despite being the highest finishing driver of a non-chartered car who hadn’t already locked himself into the race, failed to qualify.

Why? Because Cindric was faster in single-car qualifying, and thanks to Preece changing the official way by which he qualified, Cindric now took his spot as a speed qualifier.

Technically, Cindric could have wrecked on the opening lap and finished in 22nd (last) place, and Dillon could have finished the race in second behind Preece. Still, Cindric would have gotten in and Dillon would not have qualified — despite the fact that a second place Duel finish would put any other driver on row two or row three for the Daytona 500 itself.

And the craziness doesn’t stop there.

Even had Dillon beaten Preece, Cindric still may have gotten in with a 16th place finish — or even with a first-lap crash.

All he would need was for Ragan to beat Grala, Smithley and Gragson to become locked in on his Duel performance as opposed to his qualifying speed.

Yes, this happened, and Cindric would have gotten in on qualifying speed under that scenario as well. Because he already qualified, however, the final spot was given to Grala, not because he beat Smithley and Gragson but because he was the fourth fastest qualifier.

It’s admittedly not super easy to understand (or explain), especially for first-time fans.

So just look at it this way: single-car qualifying takes place before the Bluegreen Vacations Duels, but the Bluegreen Vacations Duels take precedence over single-car qualifying when it comes to actually locking into the race. The first session, not the second session, is the effective “fallback” session, which is where the confusing backwards part comes in.

Here’s an easy-to-understand chart, listed in order of importance for deciding the final four spots.

  • Duel 1 top finisher: Ryan Preece
  • Duel 2 top finisher: David Ragan
  • Fastest remaining qualifier: Austin Cindric
  • Second fastest remaining qualifier: Kaz Grala

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Tune in to Fox at 2:30 p.m. ET this Sunday, February 14 for the live broadcast of the 63rd annual Daytona 500 from Daytona International Speedway.