New qualifying rules welcome change on NASCAR road courses

The phrase "NASCAR qualifying" may be the next best thing to Ambien.

It's a snoozefest. Important, of course, to the pole-setter who gets some nice publicity out of the deal and a little bonus cash. Beyond that, it's a mostly boring exercise of taking a lap around a track and hoping for the best.

So let's give credit to NASCAR for waking up and trying to spice up qualifying format for road course races. Under the new format, NASCAR will use a group qualifying procedure, starting with the June 23 race at Sonoma Raceway.

Here's the breakdown released by NASCAR:

• Cars will be divided into groups during qualifying. The number of groups, and cars within those groups will depend on the number of cars practicing for the event.

• Group assignments will be designated based on final practice times.

• Each qualifying group will be on-track for a set period of time, determined by the series director.

• A car's best lap time during the group session will be the qualifying lap time of record.

• A group's time begins when the first car receives the green flag at the start/finish line.

"I think it's good," Clint Bowyer, who drives for Michael Waltrip Racing, said Tuesday. " I think it needed done. Seems like qualifying especially when I think back at Sonoma, it just seemed like it was kind of a little bit of a dead downtime out there anyway. I think it'll help…at the end of the day, I think it will be better for our fans and more exciting."

It won't be a cure all for tedious NASCAR qualifying, since there are only four road courses on the 36 Cup Series schedule. The new format will make its debut on June 23 with the Toyota Save-Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, followed by the Cheez-It 355 at the Watkins Glen on August 11.

But it's a start. And a break from the monotony.

"The change will add an exciting element to road-course qualifying," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "Fans will be treated to new strategy and increased competition with several cars on track at once."

Don't expect to see the same format applied to the standard 1/2-mile tracks, super-speedways and short tracks. It will continue to be the one-lap, hope-for-the-best deal that isn't exactly the most appealing for fans.

And it's not like it's a great competitive advantage. Only three pole sitters won races in 2012 (Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, twice). Things are skewing better for pole setters in 2013, as they have won the last three races.

"As far as the regular round and round, I think we are just fine," Bowyer said.

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Denny Hamlin remained hopeful of returning to the Sprint Cup Series competition at Richmond International Raceway this coming weekend, pending the results of an examination on his fractured vertebrae on Tuesday. A decision had not been announced heading into the evening.

Hamlin has missed three consecutive Cup races since fracturing a vertebra in a last-lap incident with Joey Logano on March 24 at Auto Club Speedway. Hamlin and Logano had been feuding for weeks leading up to the incident.

Richmond would be a great track for Hamlin to make a comeback. He has two victories there and an average finish of 8.1.