Qualifying concerns eased after changes
March 14, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- There were no slow cars coasting around at the bottom of the race track. There were no vehicles sitting on pit road, unable to go back out because their engines were too hot. But there was a window of opportunity -- and Brad Keselowski seized it.
For all the focus on concerns voiced by drivers over fast and slow cars mixing on the track during group qualifying in the Sprint Cup Series, one of the most obvious impacts of recent changes to the process was competitive. The use of cool-down units, granted by NASCAR beginning this week at Bristol Motor Speedway, not only eliminated the now-banned practice of driver coasting around at the bottom -- it also allowed the 2012 series champion to make a late lap that vaulted him to second on the grid behind Denny Hamlin.
"That’s the advantage of having a cool-down machine," said Keselowski's Penske teammate Joey Logano, who qualified fourth. "If this is the same rules we had last week, you can't cool off fast enough to go back out, and you're never going to go faster. Now, it's more entertaining for the fans -- hey, they're going to cool off and have a shot. And actually have a shot at going faster, not running the same speed if you're lucky."
During the first two weeks of group qualifying at NASCAR's highest level, drivers would routinely shut their engines off after crossing the start-finish line, and coast around the bottom of the track in an attempt to cool their engines by forcing air through the front grille. At the same time, cars higher on the track would be turning full-speed qualifying laps -- leading to a speed disparity which at Las Vegas approached 100 mph, and raised the concerns of many drivers.
With no generators allowed on pit road during group qualifying, teams contended that the cool-down laps were the only way to cool the engines prior to making another pole run -- while at the same time, drivers complained the tactic presented a safety hazard. In a modification announced Tuesday following a conference call with crew chiefs, NASCAR banned cool-down laps, and granted the use of a cool-down unit -- connected through either the left or right side of the hood, which must remain closed -- beginning this week.
"Tons better," said Sprint Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., who qualified 14th. "I think from everybody's perspective, it was pretty clear it was easier to get out there and do your job. I think it's still exciting, still a good format and much safer."
And for Keselowski, it offered one late opportunity to snag a third consecutive pole for Team Penske. While his last-gasp run ultimately didn't dislodge Hamlin from the top, it improved his potential starting spot by several position. He was able to make the run because the cool-down unit attached to his No. 2 car had cooled his engine sufficiently enough to take one last stab at the pole.
"I think that rule change has made qualifying even better," Keselowski said. "It's removed danger and replaced it with opportunity, which I think is a positive-positive. I'm very happy with the rule as it stands right now. It doesn’t matter what I say, because we qualified well and everyone going to say, 'Of course, you're happy with it.' But I think that was for the betterment of the sport, and certainly if for no other reason than safety, it's definitely worth it. But I also feel like being able to go out there and make multiple runs is not a lot more plausible because of that scenario, and that's something that rewards the fans and rewards the teams as well."
With another short track looming in two weeks -- Martinsville Speedway, which has no apron at all -- the modifications to the group qualifying procedure were welcome by drivers who were bracing for the worst in tight confines like those at Bristol. What might Friday's session have been like without the changes, and fast and slow cars mixing on the half-mile track's high banks?
"It would have been total chaos," six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said before qualifying. "There is a level of excitement in it, for sure, and there are certainly storylines following qualifying that isn't a bad thing for the sport. ... But there needs to be a bit of order, and this should bring a lot of order."
There certainly was that in an incident-free session that afterward earned rave reviews from competitors. "I thought being able to cool the car down was way better," said Jamie McMurray, who qualified 17th. "… You just did your qualifying laps and came in and, you didn't have to worry pulling out (on the track) if anyone was riding around slow. So it was absolutely way safer, and I would say a better show."
Keselowski, who earned his third front-row starting spot in as many weeks under the group qualifying format, would certainly agree. So would Logano, even if his own lap late in the final session at Bristol didn't result in the same improvement as his teammate's.
"Everyone was for it," Logano said of the changes. "Everyone was lobbying for this, and NASCAR made the right call listening to teams and understanding what our point of view was."