Daytona 500 pole position winners for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’s Daytona 500 are rewarded with being the driver to lead the field across the start line at the beginning of the 200-lap 500-mile (800 km) race. Pole qualifying for the Daytona 500 is held one weekend before the race at the Daytona International Speedway. The driver to complete the fastest single lap in the final of three rounds in the knockout qualifying session around the 2.5-mile (4.0 km) high-banked tri-oval superspeedway earns the pole position. The first Daytona 500 was held in 1959 and in 1982, it became the opening event for the NASCAR Cup season. The term „pole position“ was originally coined in the American horse racing industry, and indicated the position of the starter being next to the „poles“, which established the boundaries of the course. The two drivers who complete a lap with the fastest time are awarded the first and second starting positions for the Daytona 500. An additional 33 to 35 entrants are determined by a combination of the results of two qualifying races and the position of the team in the previous season’s point rankings. The remainder of the 43 car field consists of drivers who meet certain qualifications, such as qualifying speed or being one of the previous NASCAR champions.
Bill Elliott set the pole position qualifying record on February 9, 1987 when he navigated around the circuit with a 42.782-second lap, which is an average speed of 210.364 miles per hour (338.548 km/h). Since 1988, NASCAR has required teams to install a restrictor plate between the throttle body and the engine. This rule was enacted as an effort to slow the cars speed in response to an accident in which fans suffered minor injuries when Bobby Allison’s car blew a tire and crashed at over 200 miles per hour (320 km/h) during a race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1987. Depending upon the sponsor, era, or a specific year, the qualifying races have been referred to as the „Duels“ or the „Twins“.
The qualifying session for pole position is held before the Daytona 500. Drivers take one timed lap to determine their time. The fastest qualifier takes the pole position for the Daytona 500 and starts on the inside of the first row; the second fastest starts alongside him on the outside, referred to as the „outside pole.“ Both front row starters are locked into these starting positions.
The 2015 race used the standard knockout qualifying system. Up to the 2014 race, drivers took two timed laps, and the better of the two timed laps was the driver’s lap for purposes of Daytona 500 qualifying. Until 2001, NASCAR offered a second (and at times, a third) round of qualifying for teams who wished to improve their qualifying times. Drivers and teams decided if they were content with their first attempt, and „stood on their time“, or if they wanted to improve their chances by attempting a „second-round qualifying“ attempt. If satisfied with the original attempt, the team was required to notify NASCAR within five minutes of the final practice sessions, and before the beginning of the „second-round qualifying“ attempts. Drivers who made second-round attempts started behind first-round only drivers; however, the qualifying times were crucial, since it determined a driver’s fall back time should he fail to finish in the top 14 of the qualifying races. The strategy was usually done by drivers whose times would not make the race or be on the bubble. The second round of qualifying ended in 2001.
The two fastest drivers in the final qualifying session (the Daytona 500 pole winner and the „outside“ pole winner) only are also awarded the pole positions for the two qualifying races held the following Thursday. Drivers are ranked by the furthest number of rounds advanced in qualifying, and then their qualifying time in the final round that they reached. Those who rank with an odd-numbered position are assigned to the first qualifying race, and those with an even-numbered rank to the second race. Cars in the final round of qualifying start the race in the front. The starting spots for the third through 32nd positions are determined by the drivers‘ finishing position in the qualifying races, with only the top 15 drivers‘ results, excluding the pole sitter in each race, advancing to the feature. Since 2005, each of the two qualifying races is 150-mile (240 km) long, or 60 laps. From its inception in 1959 until 1967, it was 40 laps, and from 1969 to 2004 it was 50 laps. After the races, the top four drivers in speed of those that failed to advance through the qualifying race are positioned in positions 33-36. The speeds used for this does not reflect their official qualifying times; regardless of which qualifying round they reached, their time used is the fastest time set in any round (first, second, or third), and does not reflect their starting position in the Duels. Positions 37-42 will go to the top six teams (not drivers) in points from the previous year’s owners (team) points standings of teams not already qualified, again with their positions based on speed, again based on the fastest time in any round, not in the final round that they reached. The final starting position in the Daytona 500 (43rd overall) is reserved by NASCAR to allow one former NASCAR champion to start the race under the „champion’s provisional“ rule. Also known as the „Petty Rule“, this rule was established in 1989 when NASCAR’s winningest driver (Richard Petty) failed to qualify for an event at Richmond International Raceway. If the Champion’s Provisional is not necessary, the seventh-highest team in the previous year’s points advances, and positions 37-43 are positioned based on speed from their fastest round of qualifying.
From 2005 until 2012, NASCAR adopted an „All Exempt Tour“ format similar to golf. The teams in the top 35 of owner points during the previous season would be eligible to run in the Daytona 500, regardless of qualifying speed. The qualifying races now determine the relative starting position for these 35 drivers plus the starting positions for an additional seven to eight teams. The top 35 drivers, plus two non-top 35 drivers from each qualifier, start in the first 39 positions of the 500. The 40th, 41st, and 42nd starting positions are given to the fastest three non-exempt cars based on qualifying speed, which have not already qualified. The 43rd starting position is awarded to the most recent previous NASCAR champion who attempted to qualify; it is given to the fastest car that hadn’t qualified if all previous champions qualified into the field. In 2008, the qualifying competition became known as the „Coors Light Pole“ when Coors replaced Budweiser as the primary sponsor. Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser Busch Corporation, had been sponsoring the race since 1979.
In early years, qualifying had varying formats: from one timed lap, to the average of two laps, to the better of two laps. The idea of having two individual races to establish the starting lineup of the Daytona 500 dates back to the first race in 1959. That event, advertised as „the 500 Mile NASCAR International Sweepstakes“, featured cars from NASCAR’s Grand National (now Sprint Cup Series) division racing against cars in the Convertible division. The first of the 100-mile (160 km) qualifying races consisted of Convertible division cars and the second of Grand National cars. Shorty Rollins won the 100-mile Convertible race to become the track’s first winner. When the green flag was thrown on the first Daytona 500, 59 cars raced to the starting line; the event was held without a caution period during the entire race. In 1960 (incidentally, the first ever national telecast of a NASCAR race), the last chance race was eliminated; from 1960 through 1967 the qualifying events were 100 miles (160 km) in length. When the season opened in 1968, the qualifying races were increased to 125 miles (201 km), which meant the drivers would have to make at least one pit-stop to refuel (though the races were not held because of weather in 1968). Prior to 1971, the qualifying races yielded points to the drivers‘ championship.
The 12-mile-per-hour (19 km/h) reduction in speed for the 1971 qualification was a result of NASCAR’s effort to limit the increasing speeds achieved through the late 1960s and early 1970s. Engine size and technology, along with increased aerodynamic styling changes, brought speeds to over 200 miles per hour (320 km/h) at some of the larger superspeedways. In an effort to reduce the escalating costs of developing faster racing equipment, increased horsepower, and the lack of parity in competition, NASCAR implemented several restrictions for the 1971 season, attempting to reduce speed by two methods. It experimented with restrictor plates for the first time at Michigan in August 1970. At the beginning of the 1971 season, NASCAR limited an engine’s cubic inch displacement. The reductions had the effect of reducing costs for teams, but also limiting the horsepower and top speeds of NASCAR teams. At the time, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. stated:
„Special cars, including the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler, Ford Talladega, Dodge Daytona, Dodge Charger 500, and Plymouth SuperBird shall be limited to a maximum engine size of 305 cubic inches.“
Corporate sponsors purchased naming rights to qualifying races; between 1982 and 1984, Uno cards was the title sponsor for the „Uno Twin 125’s“ qualifying events. In 1985 they became known as „7-Eleven Twin 125’s“; no sponsors funded the 1988 and 1989 qualifying events and the races were called „Daytona Twin Qualifiers“. Gatorade became the sponsor of the dual qualifying events in 1991. In 2005, the event was increased 150 miles (240 km), and became known as the „Gatorade Duels“. In 2013, Belgian brewer InBev took over sponsorship until 2015. Starting in 2016, Quebec-based Bombardier Recreational Products took over sponsorship of the races, where it stands today.
Since the restrictor plate era began in 1988 until 2014, qualifying was the better single lap of two; drivers are permitted one warm-up lap followed by two consecutive timed laps. Since restrictor plate cars require more time to accelerate to full speed, drivers often consider their first timed lap a „throwaway lap,“ and use it essentially as a second warm-up lap; and the second timed lap is usually the fastest of the three laps.
In August 2009, NASCAR announced that it would reschedule the 2010 opening round of qualifying to avoid a conflict with the NFL Super Bowl. The events that determine the top two starters for the Daytona 500 were rescheduled after the NFL moved the Super Bowl day one week to February 7, 2010. Qualifying had originally been scheduled for February 7, but NASCAR moved the date back to Saturday, February 6, to avoid conflict with the NFL. Daytona Speedway president, Robin Braig, stated:
„We’re excited about the new schedule, […] By moving Daytona 500 qualifying to Saturday, we are now providing even more value to our race fans. (They) can now enjoy a unique racing triple-header as well as all the festivities surrounding the Super Bowl the following day.“
In 2014, NASCAR adopted, starting with the second race of the year in Phoenix, a Formula One-style knockout qualifying system. After tweaking it in the 2014 GEICO 500 at Talladega, the format became three five-minute rounds, with the first round being split as two five-minute rounds with half the field in each round. As is the case for standard knockout qualifying, the top 24 advanced to the second round, and the top 12 advancing to the final round. This format was used at the Daytona 500 for the first time in 2015, but was soon abandoned for restrictor plate races after a series of incidents taking place during qualifying.
Restrictor plate races eventually gets a new two-round qualifying format starting from the first Talladega race. In round 1, each car goes out one at a time for one warm-up, one timed, and one cool down lap. The order for the cars released was determined by a random draw. NASCAR will release the next car to begin their lap while the current car is finishing their timed lap with the goal to have the next car start their timed lap no more than 20 seconds after the previous car finishes. The top 12 cars from round 1 will make a second run in the same format to determine the starting lineup for positions 1–12, with the order of cars released are the invert of round 1 result (i.e. the 12th placed car will be released first). Positions 13th and below are determined by round 1 result.
The very first NASCAR races to ever be shown on television were broadcast by CBS. In February 1960, CBS sent a „skeleton“ production crew to Daytona Beach, Florida and the Daytona International Speedway to cover the Daytona 500’s Twin 100 (now the Can-Am Duels) qualifying races on February 12, 1960. The production crew also stayed to broadcast portions of the Daytona 500 itself, two days later. The event was hosted by John S. Palmer. CBS would continue to broadcast portions of races for the next 18 years, along with ABC and NBC.