Talladega qualifying should be a great show
April 29, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
First group qualifying for Cup drivers on restrictor-plate track is eagerly anticipated
Kevin Harvick joked that his extremely well thought-out strategy for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' first-ever knock-out edition of qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend was simply, “just going home and starting in the back.’’
Carl Edwards smiled and shook his head when asked his thoughts.
"If I weren’t in it, I would be tuned in to watch because it will be entertainment," said Edwards, perhaps echoing FOX Sports' can't-miss reasoning for airing it live on the network (Saturday, 1:10 p.m. ET, FOX).
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t expect Saturday’s new qualifying format -- group qualifying’s restrictor plate debut -- to be as compelling a display as Sunday’s high-speed, high-stakes race around NASCAR’s biggest track.
Now we have the ultimate pre-show.
"It will be interesting and it’s just kind of a crap shoot just like the race, but it will be exciting for sure," Harvick said. "It will definitely be better than watching three and a half hours of one car going around the race track, I promise you that."
To his point, Boris Said (who won a pole at the other restrictor-plate track, Daytona, in 2006) once joked that a monkey could win single-car qualifying at Talladega because essentially all the driver did was push the pedal to the floor, hold it and turn left around the high banks.
It won’t be "monkey" business as usual this week because NASCAR’s knock-out time trials force strategy and even a bit of showmanship as teams decide when and how they can make the cleanest, fastest run with 46 other cars also attempting to do the same thing at the same time.
With that many cars in the first round of qualifying, there is the potential of benefiting from someone else’s draft and just as likely a scenario that a car might block another’s fast run -- intentionally or not.
However, while there is opportunity -- even temptation -- for a driver to create havoc for another competitor, Clint Bowyer doubts that will be the first option for anyone.
"Everybody is trying their hardest and more importantly you’re strategizing to set yourself up for the next round of qualifying," Bowyer explained.
"Maybe at the end if you went out and blocked somebody … you’re just going to be ridiculed and make yourself look like a fool. Nobody likes a sore loser. You go out and try to do the best you can, try to get your tires cooled off to get yourself setup for the next round.
"Being cute and doing stuff like that, it will catch up to you, just like it always does."
Beyond the bad karma messing up another competitor’s run, Bowyer just doesn’t think it will be a practical tactic. Nor does he expect the other end of the spectrum to occur either: teammates being able to help one another.
"I don’t think you’re going to be able to go out -- even as many cars as Rick Hendrick has -- I don’t think you’re going to be able to go out with your teammates, slingshot past and help one another get a good lap," Bowyer predicted. "I really do think you’re going go to have to go out in a big pack, try to lag back and get that big run and make the most of it.
"All you are is one little step of somebody moving up and blocking or changing lanes on you and you had that big run and you have to check up, then you’ll lose that momentum and you’ll be knocked out."
Our first glimpse of group qualifying on a superspeedway came for the season-opening Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
Driver Brian Scott has unique experience in having participated in that session at Daytona and attempting to make the Cup race at Talladega.
"I know that Daytona in the Nationwide cars, we did group-session qualifying and it was absolutely insane,'' Scott said. "There were multiple opportunities that just my car was in where there could have been multiple-car wrecks and pileups just in qualifying. We only did one session at Daytona, so that was all that we got in. We didn't even do the second or the third, but it was crazy. (Rain washed out the second and third rounds of that qualifying session)
"I would say I'm definitely a little nervous going to Talladega to do that again.
An unintended, unofficial version of group qualifying took place last year. Several drivers consider it a bit of a dress rehearsal. With rain forecast to cancel qualifying in the fall Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega, most teams used practice to lay down a fast lap -- knowing practice speeds would set the starting lineup with no qualifying.
"We knew it was going to rain qualifying out so everyone was trying to post the fastest time and it was insanity," Edwards recalled. "We ended up on the pole, which was great, but we almost wrecked the race car.
"I really don’t know what to expect (this weekend). I am glad we are in the position we are in with the points and we have a win already because it is going to be interesting."
Two-time Talladega winner Jimmie Johnson is among those just going into the weekend with an open mind and wide-open expectations.
"It just depends on who’s trying to team up, who’s trying to work together, how far somebody is laying back," Johnson said. "You know you are getting up to speed and the group behind you, you are pulling them along at a faster rate, do you abort on your lap and try to catch somebody else and tag on to the back of their draft?
"So, you can’t predict it. It’s just going to be out of control, in a good way. … It will be a very interesting, I don’t know, 40 minutes of television, whatever it ends up being."
Most people in the sport can’t recall the last time a single qualifying day has been so eagerly anticipated -- for all the right and wrong reasons, depending on your perspective.
It’s provided speculation, head-shaking and anticipation about an event that previously was forgettably routine, and Bowyer is quick to point out the undeniable fast fact.
"The biggest thing about Talladega is it really doesn’t matter where you start," Bowyer said. "Literally, you could start dead last in a good car and by lap five be leading it easy."