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With the exception of the season opening Daytona 500, all teams attempt to qualify at a NASCAR race by the means of a single qualifying session.
To fill the 43 starting positions for a Nextel Cup or Busch Series race, or 36 in a Craftsman Truck Series race, teams must first submit an entry blank to NASCAR during the week prior to the event. NASCAR places no limits on the number of teams that can attempt to qualify for a race, but typically 50 teams will enter to try and make the ‘show' or a Nextel Cup race.
On qualifying day, NASCAR uses a qualifying draw to set the order that the cars will use to make their qualifying runs. Teams choose a representative who reports to the NASCAR hauler in the garage area. Using a machine not unlike one used in a bingo game filled with numbered balls, the representative chooses one. The owners points that week determine the order that teams choose the balls. The qualifying order is set after the last position is drawn.
The order that a team qualifies can be important depending on which track they are at that week and the time of day that the qualifying is run. Later in the day is preferable to most teams to qualify. Racetracks tend to be faster as the sun goes down and the track surface cools.
Each car in order will take one warm-up lap followed by up to two full speed laps. The faster of the two laps will be the lap of record and used to determine their position in the session. Some teams may only run one lap if they choose, feeling that the first lap will be the fastest and that they'll be taking a chance on an accident if they try for two.
Once every car has ran qualifying laps, the field will be set with the fastest seven cars not in the top 35 in points merged in according to their speeds.
At the start of the season, for the first five races, NASCAR uses the top 35 in owner points from the final race of the previous season. From the sixth race on, the current owner points are used (In the Busch and Truck Series, the top 30 in owner points is used).
The top 35 in owner's points are guaranteed a starting spot regardless of their speed. The cars not in the top 35 in owner points are called the ‘go or go home' cars; they have to qualify based on speed and are not guaranteed a starting spot. The ‘go or go home' cars can be ‘bumped' by those in the top 35. When a drivers lap puts him near the bottom of the speed charts he is ‘on the bubble' or in danger of not making the race should another driver among the ‘go or go home' cars put down a faster lap.
Another way that a ‘go or no go' car can be bumped is by a past champion. NASCAR reserves a spot in the field for their reigning or past series champions. This ‘champions provisional' can be used if the car is not in the top 35 in owner's points and the driver fails to qualify on speed. The order that these provisionals can be used is simple; the most recent champion gets the spot first if needed. NASCAR mandated in 2007 that a champion could only use six provisionals in a season.
In recent years, new teams have brought previous champions out of retirement in order to take advantage of their provisionals. In 2006, Hall of Fame Racing owned by former NFL players Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, hired two-time champion Terry Labonte to drive the first five races of the year for them.
Since the team had no owner points from the season before, Labonte was able to ensure them starting spots by using his champions provisional three out of the first five races.
Driver Tony Raines took over at the sixth race of the year, and the team only missed one race because of a failure to qualify the rest of the season.
Although the field is set after qualifying, the starting grid can still change. If a car crashes during practice after qualifying, changes an engine, or fails inspection (but is passed on re-inspection) it will be sent to the rear of the field prior to the green flag.
In the Busch and Truck Series, racecars and trucks are ‘impounded' after qualifying. Teams are only allowed to make minor changes and then only under the watchful eye of a NASCAR official prior to the race.
In the Nextel Cup series, five events are normally ‘impound' races.
Any team in any series that is caught making ‘unapproved adjustments' during an impound period earn a spot at the rear of the field on raceday and in some instances a fine from NASCAR.
If qualifying is rained out, the field is set by the top 35 (30 in Busch and Truck) owner points, followed by the previous seasons winners, past champions not in the top 35 and finally by those teams who have made qualifying attempts in the current year. Any ties are broken by their position in the owner points, regardless of where that is.
The only exception to NASCAR's normal qualifying procedures is at the season opening Daytona 500 for the Cup series and occasionally at select Busch series road course races.
For the Daytona 500, a qualifying session is still held, but only to determine the first and second starting positions. The rest of the field set by two 125-mile qualifying races.
At some Busch series road course races NASCAR uses a European style procedure. Cars are sent out in groups and the fastest lap during a specified time is used to set the field.