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Cooling issue heats up in group qualifying

February 28, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Sprint Cup Series drivers discuss their takeaways from the new qualifying format

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AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Who knew that the biggest issue among drivers during the first group qualifying session for the Sprint Cup Series would be cars going -- too slow?

Yet that was the case Friday at Phoenix International Raceway, where NASCAR's premier division made its first attempt at the group qualifying format introduced for this season. Brad Keselowski set a blistering track record in the new format, but many other drivers were more concerned with the lack of speed coming from cars coasting around the 1-mile facility, trying to cool down their engines for another run at the pole.

"The concept its really cool, but they need to let you cool the cars down, and that way you don’t have to have all those cars running around at half-speed," said four-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick, who was eliminated in the first of the two-round knockout system. "Because one of these times, somebody's going to get clobbered in the back. The concept is awesome. I like the pace of qualifying. But they need to let us cool them down so we don’t have the cars out there running around half-speed."

Friday marked the debut of group qualifying for the Sprint Cup tour, which utilized its traditional qualifying format last week for the Daytona 500. For a 1-mile layout like Phoenix, the format consisted of a 30-minute session involving all cars, a 10-minute break, and then a 10-minute final session in which only the fastest 12 cars from the first session compete. Cars started out lined up along pit road by random draw, two to a pit stall, their noses pointed toward the pit wall.

But when the track went green, things got inventive in a hurry. In single-car qualifying, drivers often shut their engines down immediately after passing beneath the flag stand, in an effort to cool the motor by coasting back to the garage. Friday, that tactic continued in group qualifying -- which led to cars coasting around the desert mile at the same time as other vehicles barreling through in full-fledged attempts to top the board.

"It's like going to a race, you have a minimum speed, right? You should have some sort of minimum speed," said Martin Truex Jr., who also did not advance to the final round. "Because you don’t ever want to be on a run and have somebody pull out in front of you going 50 mph. It's dangerous. I don’t know. I'm not the good person to ask today, because we had a good car in practice, and it was absolutely horrendous there."

And yet, the opinions NASCAR received appeared decidedly more mixed. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, said following the session that some drivers told him that the coasting tactic didn't cool the engine effectively enough. Others asked him not to acquiesce to calls for the use of cooling units, which they believe would undermine strategy. The only definite coming from Phoenix is that NASCAR will continue to listen to teams and make adjustments to the format as necessary.

"They weigh in because they think things can be better," Pemberton said. "It's our job to balance all that out and remove the agenda part of it that a team may or may not have. Right now, I think it's doing pretty good."

Entering Friday, there were concerns about engines in the new format, but those worries stemmed from wear and tear in a 50-minute session where drivers make more than just the two laps completed in single-car runs. But it quickly became apparent that many teams planned to cool their engines in mid-session, leading drivers to routinely shut off the ignition as they passed the start-finish line. NASCAR allows teams to make only minimal adjustments to the cars during a group qualifying session, with the lone temperature modification being the addition or removal of tape on the front end.

"I didn’t know that everybody was gong to go out there and coast and cool their engines down," said rookie Kyle Larson, who qualified eighth. "In thought that was pretty weird. I'm sure they’ll tweak on it some. It was kind of sketchy for some cars that were at speed. I know the 9 (car of Marcos Ambrose), I didn’t known the 9 was coming, and I was rolling through (turns) 1 and 2 on the bottom, and he came kind of close to hitting me. I'm sure NASCAR will tweak on it some, and make it a little bit different. But it was exciting."

And yet, to most, the coasting was no surprise. Third-place qualifier Jamie McMurray said he and his team discussed the tactic at dinner the night before, and others came in with a similar game plan. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver said the issue could be resolved if NASCAR would allow generators -- which have cooling units built in -- to be used during qualifying. Joey Logano added that change would also allow drivers to make more laps, given that they wouldn't have to wait as long for their engines to cool down.

"It takes so long to cool it," Logano said. "If you can cool it in five minuets and go back out, there would be more cars on the race track more often making hot laps."

Pemberton, though, said NASCAR was hesitant to allow cooling units, which would necessitate hoods being raised and lead to the prospect of further adjustments beyond just those now allowed. "It's management as much as it anything," said Pemberton, a former crew chief.

"We're not discounting their concerns in any way," he added. "It's important for us to work together with the teams to come up with the right solutions."

Engines were the talk of the garage area all day. Under the prior single-car qualifying method, teams were able to manipulate engine temperatures to an ideal condition using cooling systems and generators. Engine builders were wary, given that any failure under NASCAR's one-engine rule would necessitate starting at the rear, and no one is yet certain how much stress group qualifying will put on engines that much still undergo additional practice sessions and the race.

"I would say the engine guys are more nervous than anybody," said Doug Yates of Roush-Yates Engines, which builds engines for all Ford teams. "This is a huge change for us. Usually you line up and cool the water down and you heat the oil up as hot as you can get it, and (use) as thin of oil as you can get, and run a couple laps, and that is it. We know how the engines react to that scenario. This is all new. How many runs are you going to make? How hot will the oil get, which drives the water temperature and how do you get it cooled back down? There are a lot of factors here."

And teams hope to get a better feel for those and other factors as the weeks -- and the group qualifying sessions -- go along.

"I think it’s going to be great once we get it all going and get all the kinks worked out with it," Harvick said before the qualifying session began. "It’s definitely going to keep the on-track excitement up. So I think everybody is excited, but everybody is a little bit on edge, because you don’t really know exactly what you need to do. You’ve thought of everything you can think of, but there will always be a hundred things that you don’t think of."

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