How NASCAR Qualifying Works

How NASCAR Determines the Starting Lineup for the Race Each Week

NASCAR XFINITY & Camping World Truck Series Testing - Charlotte
NASCAR XFINITY & Camping World Truck Series Testing - Charlotte. Jared C. Tilton / Stringer / Getty Images

Each week the starting lineup for the NASCAR race is determined by the NASCAR qualifying process. With qualifying times and provisionals factoring into the mix NASCAR qualifying can be a bit confusing. Here is the current method that NASCAR uses to determine the official starting lineup for the race each week.

Who Goes First?

Qualifying order used to be set by a random draw. In 2011 and 2012 the qualifying order was set by practice speeds with the slowest drivers first and the fastest drivers going off last. This is still how it works for the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.

In 2013 the Sprint Cup series returned to a random draw to determine qualifying order.

Qualifying order can have a huge effect on the outcome of qualifying. As the track cools later in the afternoon often speeds will increase so drawing a high number is often an advantage.

The Qualifying Run

At the scheduled time, NASCAR qualifying will begin. Cars take to the track one at a time. Drivers normally start from pit road and have less than one full lap to get up to speed. The drivers get the green flag the first time they cross the start/finish line. Then drivers get two laps to set their best time, taking the fastest of the two as their official NASCAR qualifying time.

There is some strategy in play here. At a restrictor plate, race drivers will "throw away" their first lap by running way up by the outside wall. This gives the engine the maximum amount of time to get up to speed and makes the second lap a little bit quicker.

Conversely, at an abrasive track like Darlington, a driver might pit after his first green-flag lap and not even take his second qualifying lap because the car is at its fastest right at the beginning. If the driver feels like he hit his marks on the first lap then he's wasting his time and risking damaging the car by taking another lap which will usually be slower.

More common though are the mid-range "regular" tracks where drivers will go all out for two laps in an effort to set a fast time.

Time vs Speed

Officially NASCAR qualifying is set by the amount of time it takes a driver to complete his one fastest lap. NASCAR times the laps electronically down to one-thousandth of a second (.001). If there is a tie, the team that is higher in car-owner points gets the spot.

Notice that we are talking about the time during qualifying and not speed. The formula for converting lap times to miles per hour is:

(length of the track in miles)/(lap time in seconds)*60*60

Qualifying is usually reported in the media in miles per hour but officially it is kept in seconds.

In a perfect world, the fastest 43 cars that show up for NASCAR qualifying on any given week would start the race. However, in order to reward the teams that show up week in and week out NASCAR has some provisionals available to help out a team that has a bad week.

The Guaranteed Starters

From 2005 through 2012 NASCAR guaranteed the top 35 teams in car owner points a spot in the starting lineup. That rule was abandoned for the 2013 season. NASCAR returned to the pre-2005 rules where the top thirty-six positions are determined by speed.

If you are one of the fastest drivers during qualifying then you will start the race regardless of how many points you have.


After the top 36 spots are set by speed NASCAR reserves a few positions for drivers who have a problem during their qualifying run. This allows a top team to have a crash or equipment failure during qualifying and still make the race.

The next six positions (37-42) are set by car owner points for teams that didn't make the race based on qualifying time. These teams line up based on points and not speed.

This leaves one final spot which is known as "The Champions Provisional." This final 43rd starting position is reserved for any former NASCAR Champion that didn't qualify for the race any other way (by points or on time.)

A driver can only use the past champions provisional once every six races. If a driver uses it then they will have to attempt to qualify six more times before they can use it again.

If there is no driver eligible for the Champions Provisional then that spot goes to the eighth fastest driver that is not guaranteed a starting spot based on points.

Some Exceptions to the Rules

The most obvious exception to all of this is the Daytona 500. The Daytona 500 follows its own qualifying process that is unlike any other race on the NASCAR schedule.

Another exception has to do with the all-important car owner points. Through the first three races of the year, NASCAR uses the car owner points from the previous season. Beginning with the fourth race of the year NASCAR switches to the current season's car owner points to determine the guaranteed starters.

And finally, what does NASCAR do when it rains or snows or for any other reason qualifying is canceled? If qualifying is rained out the starting lineup will be determined by practice speeds.

If practice was rained out too then NASCAR lines up the top 42 drivers by car owner points. Then the Champions provisional is still available to a former Champion not in the top 42. If there isn't an unqualified past Champion then the next driver in points gets the last starting spot.

NASCAR's qualifying rules can seem quite complex but when you break it down and look at each piece of the puzzle it becomes much more obvious how it all fits together to create the starting lineup for each week's race.