MARTINSVILLE, Va. – There was a lot of buzz about today’s qualifying for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500.
For the first time at Martinsville Speedway, time trials will take place on a Saturday, starting today at 12:10 p.m ET, just before the start of the Camping World Truck Series race. That’s what’s caused the buzz.
Not that it was entirely unexpected. Earlier we learned that several races held this year at International Speedway Corp. tracks, and others, would have qualifying shifted to a Saturday.
Martinsville is the first, so naturally the revised schedule got a lot of scrutiny, which fostered several opinions.
On Friday, the Sprint Cup teams completed two 90-minute practice sessions. That was their schedule for the day.
Today, they will be at the track to run just two qualifying laps. That’s it. And the truck race will follow.
Now, the idea is that fans can get more bang for the buck with Sprint Cup qualifying and a truck race held on the same day.
And since that day is Saturday, there’s likely to be more fans in attendance.
“I’m all about what’s best for the show,” said Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick. “If it’s best for the show for us to have qualifying on a Saturday, then that’s what we need to do.”
Other drivers are not so lavish with their praise. Their contention is that the schedule is awkward and a burden.
“We just have to cram everything together,” said Penske Racing driver Kurt Busch on Friday. “That includes race trim and qualifying trim. I would expect lap totals to be close to 250 and that’s half a race.
“Tomorrow it’s just going to be two laps and that’s where a driver has to step up and show what he can do for his team and make sure he gets the best out of his car.”
Busch, however, agrees that if the new schedule is best for the fans, then that’s as it should be.
Ryan Newman, who drives for Stewart-Haas, said: “I just don’t want to come here for a day and just qualify.
“Coming here, I have the opportunity to go back and forth so coming up tomorrow for two laps is not the most planned, I guess you could say, use of everyone’s time.
“I’m not mad about it but I don’t see that it makes entire sense right now.”
Many observed that the new schedule mirrors that of “impound” races, of which, this year, there remain only a few.
How Saturday qualifying holds up at Martinsville and elsewhere remains to be seen.
But, as I’ve said many times before, what happens in NASCAR today has happened in the past – and that includes fooling around with Sprint Cup qualifying dates.
You might find some of this hard to believe, but it’s true.
For many years, Martinsville staged not one, not two, but three days of qualifying.
The first round was held on Thursday and, get this, only 10 cars were permitted into the field. On Friday a second round usually increased the field to 30 cars. Then a third round, on Saturday, would complete the starting lineup of, usually, 36 cars.
Martinsville wasn’t the only track that adopted this quirky system. North Wilkesboro did, too.
It was the same process – qualifying for the top 10 on Thursday, followed by a second round and then, sometimes, a third.
The reasoning behind this didn’t have as much to do with the fans as it did the media.
Martinsville President Clay Earles and Enoch Staley, the boss at North Wilkesboro, both reasoned that if they had three days of qualifying, that could provide them with more newspaper coverage.
Without the Internet and only minimal television coverage, if any, newspapers were the primary tools of race track publicity.
So the more time reporters had to spend at a track to gather the news, the better it was for the tracks – at least that is what Earles and Staley believed. Common sense dictated three days of coverage was better than two.
But when it came to spending an extra day at a track, the media and competitors didn’t see where there was any common sense involved.
If one extra day seemed nonsensical, how about two?
For years Charlotte Motor Speedway held qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 on Wednesday – and the race wasn’t scheduled until Sunday.
That meant competitors spent five days at the speedway. On some days there wasn’t much to do. There was plenty of grousing.
Best we could figure, Bruton Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns Charlotte and other tracks – which won’t hold qualifying on Saturday – wanted to have something as close to a Daytona Speedweeks as he could get.
It evolved that while CMS still held qualifying on Wednesday, there was no NASCAR activity on Friday.
The late Dick Beaty, then the Winston Cup Director, told me, “If we’re gonna have to be here Wednesday, we’re gonna take a day off.”
Today, of course, qualifying at CMS is on Thursday. Martinsville dropped its three-day policy years ago.
But it has something new now for the fans – that will, ultimately, determine if it is right or wrong.