All-Star qualifying adds pit-road twist
May 15, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- David Ragan guesses he was 12 or 13 years old, standing in the Legends garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and watching Dale Earnhardt launch off Turn 3 and onto pit road as part of an all-star qualifying format that mandated a pit stop but featured no speed limits. The Intimidator slammed on his brakes, barely making his stall, and then after the four-tire change screamed away with a roar.
"As soon as it got quiet, he revved his engine up to like six or seven grand," Ragan recalled. "I can remember the crowd just going nuts."
Earnhardt may no longer be with us, but NASCAR will try to recapture some of that magic this weekend when it once again sets aside pit road speed limits for Sprint All-Star Race qualifying Friday night. Qualifying for the non-points event will consist of three laps and a mandatory four-tire pit stop, and the driver with the lowest total time will lead the field to the green flag on Saturday night.
But unlike recent years, speeds entering and exiting pit road on the qualifying run will not be enforced. It's a throwback to the wilder, earlier days of the event, and an unpredictable element that's left some drivers downright giddy. "That's probably one of the most exciting things I've heard," Greg Biffle said during a sponsor appearance at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Why? For competitors who reached NASCAR’s big leagues well after the implementation of pit-road speed limits in the early 1990s, it's a new challenge. The speed limits will be back in place for the race Saturday night, and safety measures -- for instance, crewmen won't be able to come over the wall until the car is stopped -- will be in place for the qualifying session. But Friday could get a little hairy, with drivers trying to figure out just how far they can push it.
"Practice is going to be crazy," Biffle said. "Practice is the thing to watch, not the real qualifying. Watch practice, because the thing is, you don't know until you try it, right? It's like -- hey, can you make it from the balcony to the pool without hitting the pool deck? One way to figure it out, right?
"You can do all the calculating you want, but you've just got to try it. How fast do I have to run? How fast can I go before I spin out or end up in the grass or crash or whatever? In practice you're going to go as hard as you can go until you step over that edge, or right at it … to see what you can do. And we'll slide through the box qualifying. We're going to get in the grass, some guys will miss it completely, probably. It will be exciting."
NASCAR varies the format of the All-Star Race almost on a yearly basis, and president Mike Helton said suspending the pit-road speed limit for qualifying was one way to add more excitement to the event.
"It wasn't so much a goal as it was, what could you do in today’s world that we have experience with, but may not have been seen in a long time?" he said. "And it's been a long time since we had an open speed limit on pit road. Now, we'll only do that for qualifying, and we'll only do it for qualifying for the All-Star Race, because we can control the environment, and it will be clean down there when this happens. There are really good reasons why we have pit-road speeds, and we'll stay on board with those. But it's an opportunity to do something different on a weekend that's know for different stuff."
Ragan, who is in the event by virtue of his victory two weeks ago at Talladega, said drivers historically have entered Turn 3 at Charlotte at about 190 mph. How fast will they be going down pit road Friday night? "Over 100 mph," Biffle said. Maybe in the neighborhood of 120 mph, Ragan added. Of course, right now, no one really knows for sure.
"We have trouble not sliding through our pit box at 45 mph. So I can only imagine. Watch out, Kurt Busch. He's going to be coming down hard," Ragan said with a laugh. "It's going to be fun watching some of these guys. … I want to go first so I can stand back and watch everybody else. Because if you go last, you’re going to be overthinking it, I think."
Particularly since the All-Star Race qualifying format presents such an opportunity for drivers to lose or gain time. "Oh, yeah. I’m telling you, there's a lot of time. There is a lot of time to be made up," Biffle said. "When do you start slowing down? How fast can you get on that apron? Guys are going to end up in the grass. I promise you, guys are going to end up in the grass. I may be one of them."
On most regular race weekends, Ragan said, the difference in qualifying speed between the pole winner and the driver in 30th position is only a few tenths of a second. Friday night, an error while getting onto pit road could cost a driver a half a second, and that’s assuming all goes well on the ensuing pit stop.
"There's a big window to really gain or lose positions," Ragan said. "No one is going to say track position doesn't mean anything for the All-Star Race, because everybody wants to win that first segment. You're dang right they’re going to be practicing and working hard. … I guarantee you that's a little different brake package. We're going to have to look at that, because if we can knock out a good qualifying effort, that's going to set you up really well for that first segment."
The race pays $1 million to win, and starting order for the 10-lap final segment will be set by a driver's average finishing position over the first four 20-lap segments. Without a pit road speed limit in qualifying, drivers will have to find new landmarks -- perhaps a certain sign on the pit wall, Ragan said, or a crack in the yellow line -- that tell them where they need to lift off the accelerator or punch the brake. It's all about gaining every second possible, without making the big mistake that will put them at the rear of the field.
"That's going to be a little weird, to just come down pit road as fast as you want," Ragan said. "Hopefully, I'm not that guy who spins out through the infield."
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