New qualifying format will be a knockout indeed
January 23, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
RELATED: More on the changes | Official release | Changes 101 | Reaction | Tracks pleased
You can almost hear the buzz building now, coursing over those high banks, storming through the turns and heading toward the start/finish line. Gone is the agonizing three-hour wait as one car after another makes individual laps around NASCAR's biggest race track. Qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway -- along with everywhere else -- has been transformed by virtue of a single rule change.
Now it will be an absolute storm, with drivers almost certainly working the draft in an effort to secure the top starting position (and its accompanying first pit stall selection) in the frantic final session that caps the new group qualifying format announced Wednesday across all three of NASCAR's national series. No place stands to benefit from the change more than big, bad Talladega, where the issuing of one news release has changed the track's qualifying process from a grind into 50 minutes of must-see-TV.
Although NASCAR refers to the new process simply as a group qualifying format, other circuits like Formula 1 that have successfully utilized similar concepts call it "knockout" qualifying -- and in many places, the new procedure could prove to be just that. Beginning with this coming season, all cars will qualify on the track at the same time in an atmosphere that more closely simulates race conditions. The faster vehicles advance through two or three sessions, depending on the track's size, always culminating with the quickest 12 cars deciding the top spot among themselves.
After year upon year of single-car qualifying, this is a revolutionary change for NASCAR. While the old format had its merits -- the can-you-top-this element of single-car qualifying occasionally had its own knockout feel -- the sheer duration it took for all those cars to make all those laps on their own often dragged the session down. Weather was always a concern. Now, the process has been standardized -- qualifying in one hour, everywhere, under a format that will surely ratchet up the entertainment value and have track promoters giddy over the prospect of better Friday afternoons at the gate.
From a competitive standpoint, it's going to be interesting to see how strategy and timing play a part. The opening session of group qualifying -- mark your calendars, it's Feb. 21 when the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series qualify at Daytona -- won't begin with all entered vehicles charging toward the green flag, but instead starting from pit road. They can exit pit road at any time, and drivers can make as many laps as they want during the course of the session. Crews can even make minor adjustments between segments, though the cars can't be jacked and the hoods can't be raised. Go to the garage area, you're done.
The format will debut in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Phoenix in the second race of the season. Needless to say, there are a lot more variables at play here than just holding down the accelerator for two laps, and that's without mentioning the random draw that will decide the order in which cars are lined up on pit road prior to the session. No question, that draw could loom large, depending on the track and the situation -- say for instance you're Jimmie Johnson in the thick of the championship hunt, and you arrive at Martinsville Speedway with four races remaining, and you draw pill 45 on a tight half-mile track. Stranger things have happened.
That cars will start on pit road, able to come and go as they please over the length of the session, and makes you wonder -- will teams with poor starting draws try to game the system, staying put and gambling that a few cars will come back in or head to the garage area, easing the traffic just enough to rip off that one good qualifying lap? Or will everyone make a mad dash for it from the start, since the first qualifying laps are usually the best ones? Since all vehicles will begin with a full fuel load and use just one set of tires, will some teams stay out longer trying to trade tire wear for weight? Will teams tape off the front end, wait until the final minutes, and make one bomber run with the clock running down?
"It's hard to anticipate what they'll do. But I would imagine that many of them will think that their first couple laps on the race track, engines will be cold, things of that nature, will be their best laps in that first segment. But it's hard to imagine what strategies these guys will work on and have play out over the course of the qualifying session," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition and racing development, and a longtime crew chief at the sport's top level.
"I think as we move through the season it will take on a life of its own at different places where they will have different strategies, whether it's working on the race setups, or if they want to be aggressive in one round or kind of lay‑up in the other round, saving tires to just squeak into the final round and have the best tires. Comes to mind what you would have to do with tire management for (Auto Club) Speedway or Atlanta, Homestead and some others. I think there are opportunities there for different crew chiefs to take advantage of some of these situations."
Either way, we're guaranteed to have multiple cars on the track at the same time, which means we're guaranteed to have incidents at some point. Get wrecked, by the way, and your qualifying time is the best one you posted in the most recent session you were a part of. While it wasn't unheard of for teams to unload backup cars because of qualifying accidents under the single-car format -- particularly on fast, slick intermediate layouts -- that prospect certainly looms larger under this new procedure. And then there's the question of the draft, and how much teams will use it for qualifying at Talladega and the summer Daytona event, and whether somebody will jump out of line and go for that pole position just as if they were going for the win.
Indeed, there are a lot of moving parts to this, a qualifying format that's more complicated yet more concise all at the same time. None of this should be a surprise to competitors, who were made aware in a meeting last fall that NASCAR was considering such a shift for all points events outside of the Daytona 500 and the Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway. Two weeks ago at Preseason Thunder testing, Pemberton effectively said a move was forthcoming, although he didn't specify the Sprint Cup Series at the time. If there were voices of dissent coming from the garage area, surely we would have heard them by now.
If anything, the reaction among fans and competitors has been almost universally positive, save those malcontents who lurk on the fringes of social media and are never happy about anything. "I really like what NASCAR is doing to add more excitement," wrote Kasey Kahne on Twitter, and he was far from alone in that sentiment. Track operators get a better product, television networks get a more manageable window, officials get more flexibility in dealing with weather. Certainly, May 2 at Talladega now shapes up as a far more interesting day on the NASCAR calendar. As does every qualifying session, thanks to a new format that promises to be a knockout indeed.