Assuming that you're a baseball fan, if you had the choice between attending a Tuesday night Red Sox game against the Baltimore Orioles or watching the Chicago Cubs play in game seven of the World Series at Fenway Park against the Yankees, which game would you chose? You'd choose The World Series, of course; however, what if you could have that same level of excitement on the first day of the season? Some fans may not be ready for adrenaline-packed excitement like that right out of the gate, but NASCAR fans are used to it.
Every year, the NASCAR season opens up with a bang. Forty-three of the world's greatest stock car drivers race mere inches apart in what can be described as a 200 mph (322 km/h) traffic jam known as the Daytona 500. Drivers lay it all on the line for a chance to run at Daytona. Up until 2005, those 43 spots were up for grabs when the teams and haulers pulled into Daytona each February. However, since 2005, NASCAR has guaranteed the top 35 teams -- based on the owner's point standings from the previous year -- a starting position in the race. Now, more than ever, the pressure to qualify for the Daytona 500 is a year-long struggle for some teams. What makes things even more maddening is the unique qualifying format for the Daytona 500. This article will explain exactly how the 43-car field is set for each Daytona 500.
Before we can delve into qualifying for the big race, let's start by learning more about the Daytona track in the next section.
Daytona International Speedway: The World Center of Racing
Located a mere two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in Daytona Beach, Fla., Daytona International Speedway is a 2.5-mile trioval race track positioned on 480 acres of property that includes a 29-acre lake (Lake Lloyd) and a road course configuration. Daytona is owned by the France family, the same family that founded NASCAR. Each year, Daytona International Speedway is the site of a variety of races including the Grand American Road Racing Association's Rolex 24 at Daytona, The American Motorcycle Association Daytona 200 and five NASCAR races including the Coke Zero 400 during the Independence Day weekend. Because of this diversity, Daytona has been dubbed the "World Center of Racing." With a true year-round racing schedule, Daytona is one of the only tracks that can boast so many different forms of racing.
Daytona is a superspeedway -- any track over two miles (3.2 kilometers) in length (excluding road courses) and featuring high-banked turns -- that can seat 168,000 race fans. On the NASCAR schedule, Sprint Cup, Craftsman Truck Series and Nationwide Series cars race on two superspeedways with Talladega being the other example. At 2.5 miles (4.02 kilometers) long, Daytona is second in length only to Talladega which is 2.66 miles (4.3 kilometers) long. Let's take a quick look at Daytona's vital statistics:
- Type: Superspeedway
- Seating: 168,000
- Configuration: Trioval
- Turns: 4
- Width: 40 feet (12.2 meters) (racing surface)
- Turn length: 3,000 feet (914.4 meters)
- Front stretch length: 3,800 feet (1,158.2 meters)
- Chute length: 1,900 feet (579.1 meters) (from the middle of the trioval to turns 1 and 4)
- Backstretch length: 3,000 feet (914.4 meters)
- Total length: 8,700 feet (2,651.8 meters) or 2.5 miles (4.02 kilometers)
- Banking: 18 degrees at the start/finish line, 31 degrees in turns
[source: Daytona International Speedway]
Thirty-one degrees of banking is pretty steep. To get an idea of the angle, the top of the track near the outside wall is more than 35 feet (10.7 meters) above the infield -- that's higher than the roof of a typical two-story house. As a result of the extreme banking in the corners and the length of the track, stock cars can travel at speeds in excess of 200 mph (322 km/h). While those speeds are relatively safe for a car with an extreme amount of downforce such as a Grand-Am sports car or an Indy car, stock cars have a tendency to lift off the ground when they reverse direction at high speeds, as in the case of a spin. Because of the instability at such high speeds, NASCAR gives each team a carburetor restrictor plate to cut-down the horsepower from more than 700 to around 450. This reduces the top speed of the cars considerably. Obviously, this is why you may hear Daytona referred to as a restrictor-plate track.
NASCAR drivers seem to universally agree that stock car racing and Daytona International Speedway go hand in hand. The original Daytona track can be traced back to the 1950s where the cars used the hard-packed sand of the Daytona shoreline as the original racing surface. Those days are long gone, yet the spirit of NASCAR remains in Daytona. Two times a year, NASCAR's top racing series visits the hallowed race track. The first visit is for the race that defines NASCAR -- the Daytona 500.
Up next, find out why the Daytona 500 means so much to NASCAR fans and drivers and why qualifying is so important.
The Daytona 500: The Great American Race
In each form of major motorsports, one race defines careers and turns drivers into legends. Formula 1 has the Grand Prix of Monaco. Sports car drivers pay homage to the 24 Hours of LeMans and the recently reunified Indy Racing League showcases the Indianapolis 500 as its marquee event. In American stock car racing, the race that creates legends is the Daytona 500.
The Daytona 500 is not only considered the Holy Grail in stock car racing, but it's also considered to be the most popular race in America. Consequently, the Daytona 500, or simply The 500 as it is known by NASCAR fans, is sometimes referred to as the Great American Race. The Daytona 500 is unique in many ways. For one, the race is in the beginning of the NASCAR season. That may sound odd and begs the question, "Why would NASCAR hold its largest and most prestigious race as its first event?" Well, the truth is that nobody really knows. What is certain though is the amount of fanfare and money the Daytona 500 draws.
The share for 2008's winner -- in this case, driver Ryan Newman -- was more than $1.5 million. In the same race, driver Kenny Wallace raked in an impressive $256,735 for his last place finish. The race routinely draws celebrities from across the nation and even U.S. presidents. Considering the enormity of the race, it's no wonder the Daytona 500 is the one race every NASCAR driver aspires to win.
Over time, racing technology has advanced resulting in increased speeds. In 1987, driver Bill Elliott shattered the track qualifying record with a speed of 210.364 mph (338.548 km/h), prompting NASCAR to implement the earlier-mentioned restrictor plates. Since then, the speeds have come down considerably.
The other impact of restrictor plate racing is drafting. Drafting is the term for two or more cars running closely in a line. The draft, as it is commonly called, is when the lead car punches a hole in the air and the trailing cars share each other's aerodynamics. In essence, four cars drafting together are similar to one long car dispersing the air amongst them. Drafting works well when cars are driven in packs, so a car driven outside of the pack at Daytona and Talladega is always much slower. As a result of the efficiency of drafting, qualifying usually doesn't matter as much at a restrictor plate track -- during a race, a skilled driver with a well-tuned car can drive from the rear of the field to the front of the pack in a matter of just a few laps.
The Daytona 500 is one race sponsors and drivers can't afford to miss. Maybe it's appropriate the grandest race on the NASCAR schedule has such a unique qualifying format.
Preparation starts months before cars even hit the speedway for qualifying. NASCAR teams spend countless hours building, tuning and testing the cars they bring to Daytona. When the teams feel confident that they have the fastest car possible, they head to Florida for two weeks of intense competition.
Let's roll into the next section, as we hit the track for Speedweeks.
Speedweeks at Daytona
Qualifying for any NASCAR race is challenging, but qualifying for the Daytona 500 is especially difficult. Every year, the Daytona 500 attracts the head honchos of many of the corporations that sponsor NASCAR and the various race teams. Coupled with the fact that it's the first race of the season, the pressure to qualify is immense. Fittingly, qualifying for the Daytona 500 is a feat in itself.
Speedweeks is the term given to the two weeks that encompass the Daytona 500. For the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Speedweeks begins with single-car practice sessions and eventually leads up to drafting practice and then race practice. Along the way, NASCAR holds a special event called the Budweiser Shootout. The Shootout is a 75-lap, non-points race held on the Saturday prior to the Daytona 500. The drivers race for 25 laps, take a 10-minute intermission and then head back out onto the track for the final 50 laps.
The Sunday before the race is qualifying day and every car on the entry list -- at least those cars that have passed NASCAR inspection -- gets a shot at the pole position. Like every other qualifying session, drivers get an entry, or up-to-speed, lap and two timed qualifying laps. Teams often do several unique tricks to the cars to gain every ounce of speed they can. Small disc-brake rotors are installed and the brake pads are pried away from the discs to eliminate all rolling resistance. Team will often use thin-weight oil in order to create less friction in the engine. Drivers also do whatever they can, as the typical qualifying session sees cars travel around the top of the track during the first lap then drop to the bottom of the track on the second lap. Because the superspeedways are so big and banked so high, drivers can hold the throttle wide open during their qualifying laps. Driving in the high lane gives the cars more initial speed, but the low line is the shortest distance around. If you were to wrap a piece of rope around the lower edge of the track and another piece of rope around the top edge of the track, and then measure the two pieces of rope side by side, you would find that the rope used to measure the outer edge would be much longer. Because the centrifugal force is greater the lower on the track the cars run, the speeds are often faster -- that is, if the car handles well.
Qualifying speeds are measured in this way:
In this formula, distance is the track length and time is the vehicle's recorded lap time. We know that one hour equals 3,600 seconds, and the track length at Daytona International Speedway is 2.5 miles (4.02 kilometers). So, if a driver turns in a lap time of 48.62 seconds, we have all of the data that we need to calculate the average speed for that lap. Here's how it's done:
Time = 48.62 seconds
Speed = 2.5 x (3600/48.62) = 2.5 x 74.0436 = 185.109mph
Or if you choose to calculate the average lap speed using metric measurements:
Distance = 4.02 kilometers
Time = 48.62 seconds
Speed = 4.02 x (3600/48.62) = 4.02 x 74.0436 = 297.655 km/h
As you're about to find out, laying down a fast qualifying lap does little to secure a spot on the starting grid. It doesn't matter where the driver initially qualifies; what matters is where they finish in the qualifying race. In a cruel twist, the fastest cars on qualifying day don't always make the Daytona 500. Are you confused yet? Not to worry -- keep reading to understand how NASCAR sets the field for each Daytona 500.
Daytona 500 Qualifying: Setting the Grid
Now here's where the fun begins: Only the two fastest cars on qualifying day secure a spot on the grid. The two fastest are granted the pole position and the outside pole position. As we said before, cars that finished in the top 35 in owner's points during the previous racing season are also guaranteed a starting spot; however, the position that they will start the race in is not determined by qualifying speeds. Those drivers will fight for starting positions that are ultimately determined by where they finish in one of two 150-mile (60-lap) qualifying races called the Gatorade Duels -- formerly known as the Twin 125's, in years past.
The odd-numbered qualifiers (1st, 3rd, 5th and so on), taking into account where they finished the previous year, will start in the first Gatorade Duel along with the pole sitter; the even-numbered qualifiers (2nd, 4th, 6th and so on) race in the second Gatorade Duel along with the outside pole sitter who will, in this race, start from the pole position. So, with the exception of the first two spots, the starting grid for the Daytona 500 is determined by how the cars finish in the Gatorade Duels. But that's not the end of it.
A total of 66 cars can participate in the Gatorade Duels and two cars from each qualifying race will have the opportunity to race their way into the 500 by finishing in one of two transfer spots. Positions 3 through 39 are determined from the finishing order of the Gatorade Duel races with the two highest finishers in each race -- drivers not in the top 35 from the previous year -- earning starting spots in the Daytona 500. Two more positions are filled based on qualifying speed with the final spot going to the most recent past champion. Once all the spots are accounted for, the starting lineup is set based on the finishing order of the duel races.
So, are you still confused about how NASCAR sets the starting grid of 43 cars? It's not that complex once you see it broken down like this:
- Position 1 and 2 are the pole sitter and outside pole sitter from qualifying day. These two positions are based solely on qualifying speed. They do not need to be top 35 in owner's points during the previous season.
- Positions 3 - 39 are filled by the top 35 in the previous season car owner's points and the two highest finishing teams in each Gatorade Duel race that are not in the top 35.
- Positions 40 - 42 are filled with the next fastest qualifiers -- these positions are not based on the results of the Gatorade Duels.
- Position 43 is reserved for the most recent past champion that, for whatever reason, was unable to qualify (if applicable); otherwise the spot goes to the next fastest qualifier.
As you can see, speed matters; however, for most drivers, racing is what determines starting position in the Daytona 500. Fittingly, the most prestigious race in NASCAR demands the most from every team and driver.
For more information about the Daytona 500, NASCAR and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- NASCAR.com. "Daytona 500 Qualifying Races get Facelift." Dec. 18, 2004. (Aug. 24, 2008)http://www.nascar.com/2004/news/headlines/cup/12/18/twins_name/index.html
- Daytona International Speedway Official Web site. "Track Facts." (Aug. 23, 2008) http://www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com/News/Track-Facts.aspx
- Jayski.com. "Cup Qualifying Rules." (Aug. 18, 2008) http://www.jayski.com/teams/qualifying-rules.htm