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Group qualifying doesn’t work with drafting

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You can count Kevin Harvick among those who want a change in NASCAR’s group qualifying protocol at certain tracks.

Qualifying has turned into a drafting circus at larger tracks in 2019 because of NASCAR’s new rules. The fastest way around the track is to draft behind other cars and teams realize this. So they’ve been waiting until the last possible moment at the end of rounds to leave pit road.

Harvick noted Wednesday on his SiriusXM radio show that teams are waiting as long as they are because they don’t want to be the first car off pit road. Why? The first car in a drafting group is typically the slowest.

So teams are waiting to try to not be last. After no one made a lap in time in the final round of qualifying at Auto Club Speedway, NASCAR instituted a rule in effect last week at Texas that mandated that teams put in a lap in qualifying or start at the back of the field.

After teams played the waiting game at Texas — and made a lap — NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell said it was “really unfortunate for the fans” that teams were waiting to go in qualifying and said the “optics” of teams waiting wasn’t tenable for NASCAR’s fanbase.

Harvick was clearly not thrilled with O’Donnell’s comments. He didn’t mince words disagreeing with what O’Donnell said on SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel on Monday and said drivers had previously told NASCAR that they didn’t want group qualifying at tracks where drafting was important.

Here are the full text of Harvick’s comments from above.

“Well one way is to not air your dirty laundry on the radio. And I feel like calling the drivers out and say they’re sitting on the end of pit road on purpose is probably not something you should publicly say even if you think it. I wouldn’t flatter yourself with that thinking because of the fact that we’re all sitting down there trying to figure out how to be first. And the best way to be first with this particular rules package is to be last. And qualifying is a drafting game. Nobody wants to go out first. And Daniel Suarez went out and made a lap by himself and he was good with being fourth. And it’s coming down to it NASCAR and the teams trying to outdo themselves, that’s bad for everybody.”

“He referred to to the drivers having a meeting. Those were driver council meetings. Private meetings that were held and I think a lot of us voiced our concerns. We went into those meetings that five years ago we had group qualifying efforts that drafting did not work. We all like group qualifying. Group qualifying is great. You’ve got multiple cars on the race track, a lot of things happening. But it doesn’t work when you can draft because you wind up in these situations. And I think all of the drivers wo have been in those situations from Xfinity or trucks or the wrecks that we had at Daytona, and were just saying hey we’ve already done this before it doesn’t work when we draft.”

“Yeah the easy answer is to say that Daniel Suarez went out there by himself and went out around the racetrack and made a good lap. Well that’s fair, but not everybody wants to be fourth. Everybody wants to be first. And all those guys are sitting at the end of pit road wanting to get the best draft they can and cut it right down to the end is the best way to be the last guy in line so that you can — you have to wait in order to try to put yourself in that position.”

“So it’s a tricky game which those guys have never done, never sat in a car, never strategized and it’s really tough to make these cars group qualify when they draft. Like I say, the easy answer is to do what Suarez did but that’s single car qualifying and I’m sure you guys put that on TV and it was one of those situations which in the end, we were told that this was all on TV. We were doing group qualifying because that’s what TV wants. Well now it’s on the teams? It doesn’t really matter if its on the teams because the teams are going to prepare the same exact way they’re preparing now. They’re going to put their cars in qualifying trim. They’re going to do everything they can to make them go as fast as they can by themselves and if you get a draft it’s going to enhance that.”

Assuming Harvick’s comments about drivers voicing their concerns to NASCAR are accurate — and we have no reason to think they aren’t — it’s hard to explain why NASCAR thought that group qualifying wouldn’t devolve into a bizarro exercise at larger tracks this season. After all, NASCAR previously dropped group qualifying at big tracks in the Trucks and Xfinity Series because drafting was too important.

Why go forward with it in the Cup Series after drivers had voiced their reservations about keeping the format at tracks like Las Vegas and Texas intact? Qualifying should be simple and straightforward.

NASCAR hasn’t been afraid to change things recently. Look no further than the sweeping changes it made to the technical specifications of the cars for 2019 and the schedule in 2020. The reluctance to proactively change group qualifying at certain tracks looks extremely stubborn.

And it looks stubborn for no big reason. Qualifying isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Especially when no teams have failed to qualify for any of the six races after the Daytona 500 this season. Without anyone going home during qualifying, the sessions are basically a formality. Formalities don’t need to be extravagant. They just need to get the job done.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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