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Drivers uneasy about Daytona 500 group qualifying format

The front row for the Daytona 500 will be determined in a radically different way this season.

Jerry Markland/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick is concerned. As is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Both Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski have each expressed reservations. And Kyle Busch is openly predicting chaos when drivers attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 Sunday.

The sense of foreboding in the garage hovers over the decision to use group qualifying to set the front row for next week's Daytona 500. Though implemented across the Sprint Cup Series last season, this year marks the debut of the format in NASCAR's marquee race, which long used traditional single-car runs to set the front row.

It's a switch, while adding excitement to what was a monotonous affair, has been met with resistance among the participants.

"You are really going to have to be on your game for this qualifying session," Stenhouse said. "It probably will be the most nerve-racking qualifying session you are ever going to have."

That apprehension is justified. Group qualifying last year at Daytona (for the July race) and at Talladega Superspeedway was helter-skelter with some drivers playing mind games in addition to circling slowly on the track -- upwards of 30 mph slower.

Because of how important the draft is to posting a fast lap on either restrictor-plate track, if you didn't have a partner you suffered. Just as what happened to Stenhouse when, without someone to draft with, he couldn't post a fast enough lap and failed to qualify for the October Talladega race.

"This group qualifying for the 500 is going to be extremely hard to figure out," Denny Hamlin said. "No one figured it out at Talladega. It just was by chance that some guys made time and other guys didn't."

Further complicating matters is the convoluted and multi-tiered process to determine who is in and who's out. The front row and four spots towards the back of the field will be set Sunday. As for the remainder, the bulk comes via the finishing order in Thursday's twin qualifying races with provisionals then filling out the lineup.

An increased number of entrants -- 49 drivers competing for 43 spots in the Great American Race -- certainly raises the possibility that a big name may be sent home early. It's entirely conceivable Patrick, who placed 28th in points last season, could be on that list if she doesn't post a good speed in qualifying and struggles in her qualifying race.

"Yeah I am worried about qualifying," said Patrick, the 2013 Daytona 500 pole-sitter. "It didn't go well at Talladega and I don't see how it's going to go any different here at Daytona."

Said Ryan Newman: "We almost had Jeff Gordon miss the Talladega race by one spot because of this qualifying procedure. Not to say that it's going to happen to Jeff Gordon or to Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., but if it does happen to somebody that is big in our sport, it's not going to be good for our sport. That is not what qualifying is all about."

To combat the problems which surfaced in qualifying at Daytona and Talladega last year, NASCAR issued a technical bulletin this week warning drivers not to block or impede the process of faster cars. Any infraction could see a driver penalized by the removal of their fastest lap.

"I'm definitely worried about qualifying," Stenhouse said. "I think everybody will approach it a little bit different. I don't think anybody will be hanging around and waiting and trying to get a good lap. I think everybody is going to go out there and basically race for five minutes and see where you stack up."

Daytona 500 qualifying procedures

Round 1

-- Drivers randomly divided into two groups, with each grouping given five minutes of track time

-- The fastest 24 cars advance to second round

-- Seven-minute break between each group

Round 2

-- Five minutes long with 12 fastest cars advancing to final round

-- Seven-minute break before the final round

Round 3

-- Five minutes long

-- The fastest lap earns Daytona 500 pole