The COVID-19 pandemic forced the NASCAR Cup Series to take safety measures upon resuming their 2020 season last May, one of which was to bypass practice and qualifying. The approach will continue in 2021 for all but eight races, which is a mix of prestigious and new events.
As usual, the Daytona 500 on 14 February will feature practice and qualifying, including the Bluegreen Vacations Duel three days before the race to set the field. The 500 is one of three existing races that will have the two sessions due to their importance in the NASCAR calendar, alongside the Coca-Cola 600 on 30 May and Phoenix on 7 November.
When the NASCAR season restarted in May, the 600 was the only Cup race to feature qualifying (with Kurt Busch winning the pole). Phoenix is a no-brainer as the final race of the year; the track was also the site of the last Cup race with qualifying prior to the pandemic’s onset, and the pole was incidentally won by fall race winner and series champion Chase Elliott.
The first new race to include the sessions is the Bristol dirt race on 28 March. This perhaps comes with little surprise as the Cup Series’ first dirt race on dirt since 1970, while NASCAR’s only other brush with dirt track racing in recent times was the Camping World Truck Series‘ now-defunct Eldora Dirt Derby.
Two months later, the next practice/qualifying will take place at Circuit of the Americas. A new addition for NASCAR as a whole, COTA is the first of three road courses that will include the two pre-race sessions alongside Road America (4 July) and the Indianapolis road course (15 August). All three road courses are new to the Cup schedule, though Road America and Indianapolis were already on the Xfinity Series calendar. The Indy road course, which was introduced to the second-tier series in 2020, also featured practice for its maiden Xfinity race.
The other twenty-eight races will continue using a metric-based qualifying format to determine the starting grid. When the 2020 season resumed, NASCAR initially utilised a random draw that segregated the field by points before switching to a formula that set the lineup based on variables like standings and finishes in the previous race. Partial field inversions were also used for doubleheaders, though only Pocono will have a doubleheader in 2021 as planned long before the pandemic.
While various other racing series have continued to use standard practice and qualifying, NASCAR is still using these measures as a means to condense race weekends for health reasons. Whether or not the Xfinity and Truck Series follow suit was not immediately revealed.