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NASCAR changing qualifying to a knockout format with multiple rounds

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - NASCAR overhauled its qualifying process Wednesday, switching to a knockout format similar to Formula One and IndyCar.

Drivers and track owners applauded the change, saying it will bring excitement to what had been a somewhat monotonous and often meaningless event.

"I'm all for anything that makes it fun not only for the fans but the drivers and teams, too," Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer said. "This is really going shake things up on Fridays - in a good way."

The new format will not be used for the Daytona 500, non-points events in the Sprint Cup Series and the Truck Series event at Eldora Speedway in Ohio.

NASCAR will use three rounds of qualifying at tracks 1 1/4 miles in length or larger. The entire field will have 25 minutes to post their fastest single lap and the top 24 advance to the second round.

The second segment will last 10 minutes, and the fastest 12 will advance to a final, five-minute round. At tracks smaller than 1 1/4 miles, qualifying will be in two segments. The first will be 30 minutes, with the top 12 advancing to a 10-minute final session.

"New qualifying rules for @NASCAR 2014 season should really mix it up," 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski posted on his Twitter page. "I expect a lot more actions for fans and even more games from teams."

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice-president for competition and racing development, said the sanctioning body modified qualifying rules to make the event "more engaging to the fans in the stands and those watching on TV and online."

It's the first of several changes expected this season.

NASCAR has been working feverishly behind the scenes to improve its on-track product, particularly at 1 1/2-mile tracks, and at least some changes are expected to the points system.

NASCAR is reportedly considering a 16-driver championship field that would be whittled down to create a winner-take-all season finale. Chairman Brian France has repeatedly said he wants to place greater emphasis on winning, and he's never ruled out tinkering with the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format in an effort to create the "Game 7 moments" he covets.

Revamping qualifying should enhance track experience on non-race days, something track owners coveted for years.

"I think the direction NASCAR has taken on a new qualifying format is exactly what we need and I applaud them for taking this step," Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell said. "These two qualifying sessions will be pressure-packed for the teams and drivers, which will make it very exciting for the fans to watch."

Added Jerry Gappens, executive vice-president and general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway: "I applaud NASCAR's willingness to try something new to make qualifying more compelling for our fans. ... (This) is a positive step in the direction we need to go to create compelling on-track action all weekend. It will be interesting to watch what strategies teams utilize to get the best starting spot they can."

Teams will be allowed to run as many laps as they want during each session, but NASCAR will limit them to one set of tires — likely leading crew chiefs to approach the process with differing plans of attack.

And since qualifying near the front of the field means more at certain tracks, the approach probably will change on a weekly basis.

"It's hard to imagine what strategies these guys will work on and have play out over the course of the qualifying session," Pemberton said. "I think as we move through the season, it will take on a life of its own at different places."

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