How does NASCAR determine the starting lineups?

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

With NASCAR using a formula to determine starting lineups for much of the 2021 season, let’s take a look at how this process works.

Last season, in response to the cancellation of practice sessions and qualifying sessions upon NASCAR‘s return from the unexpected 10-week hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the sport began setting the starting lineups for the Truck Series, Xfinity Series and Cup Series races via random draws.

The drivers were separated into different groups, and each group had its own random draw. For example, the Cup Series group which contained the top 12 in the owner standings drew for the pole position and the rest of the top 12 in the lineup, with further standings-based groups determining the remainder of the lineup.

NASCAR ended up changing this format in August, moving instead to a formulated way of determining each race’s starting lineup.

For 2021, practice and qualifying are back, but only for select races.

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Before the season began, NASCAR announced plans to determine the starting lineups via actual qualifying sessions for just eight of the 36 races on the Cup Series schedule, and the formula used throughout the latter stages of the 2020 season would be back for the other 28 events.

After traditional Daytona 500 qualifying, featuring single-car qualifying and the Bluegreen Vacations Duels, took place to open up the season, NASCAR has now set two starting lineups based on the formula.

So what exacly is this formula, and how does it work?

The formula is based on three factors — technically four for cars that don’t end up with the same driver from one race to the next.

The factor split into two categories of its own is previous race finish. This accounts for 50% of the formula. But really, 50% of that 50% (25% overall) is based on the driver’s finish in the previous race, while the other 50% of that 50% (25% overall) is based on the car owner’s finish in the previous race.

The other two factors are the rank of each car in the owner standings and the rank of each driver’s fastest lap in the previous race. The former is weighted at 35%, and the latter is weighted at 15%.

Let driver’s previous finish be A, owner’s previous finish be B, owner standings rank be C, and fastest lap rank be D.

The formula looks as follows, and the driver with the lowest value secures the pole position.

(A * .25) + (B * .25) + (C * .35) + (D * .15)

If there is no data, such as if a driver didn’t compete in the previous race and therefore has no finish nor fastest lap from that event, a 41st place in that category is assumed, given the fact that there can only be 40 cars in the field.

Let’s look at an example.

Driver X wins a race with the fastest lap time, but he sits in 10th place in the owner standings. Driver Y finished that same race in second place with the fifth fastest lap time, but his car leads the owner standings.

Here’s how that looks, based on this formula:

  • Driver X: (1*.25) + (1*.25) + (10*.35) + (1*.15 ) = 4.15
  • Driver Y: (2*.25) + (2*.25) + (1*.35) + (5*.15) = 2.10

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Driver Y has the lower total, meaning that he would start the next race in a higher starting position than Driver X would.