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Drivers unsure what to expect for 'Dega qualifying

May 02, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

First Sprint Cup group qualifying session on restrictor-plate track will play out on Saturday

MORE: Cain: Talladega qualifying should be a great show
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TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The only thing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers seem to know for sure about Saturday's first group qualifying session at Talladega Superspeedway is that nothing is for sure.

Expectations are for high drama on the high banks -- where just as in the races here, a little luck will be as important as a solid strategy.

"I don't think anyone knows what to expect, and I think there's potential for it to be the best qualifying session you've seen in a long, long time," said six-time Talladega winner and current Cup points leader Jeff Gordon.

"There's some risk involved here to get the pole."

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Typically single-car qualifying at the 2.66-mile track has been more of a tedious necessity to set the starting field. But NASCAR's new knock-out group qualifying format has been so eagerly anticipated that FOX is airing it live on network television Saturday (coverage begins at 1 p.m. ET).

The procedure allows for all 47 cars entered to be on track together for 25 minutes. After a five-minute break, the fastest 24 cars will move on to the next 10-minute round.

After another five-minute break, the fastest 12 cars from that group then move on to a high-frenzy session to determine the pole winner and first six rows.

The starting strategy is multi-fold and untested at a restrictor-plate track.

Because of the unique nature of the draft here, during the race a car can be running near the back of the field one lap and leading the race two laps later, so starting position matters less here than at a smaller venue.

The problem is that the tight draft-style racing here also inevitably helps produce at least one "Big One" -- multicar crash -- and driving up through the field puts a driver in a more precarious position. These factors play a big role in contemplating the risk a team is willing to take in qualifying.

"The thing I'm trying to come to grips with is where do I take a large risk?," six-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson explained Friday. "Trying to qualify well or trying to work my way through the pack to get to the front? And we're just not sure right now what to expect. We wanted to come here with a plan in place of how we were going to qualify, but our opinion seems to change every 15 minutes."

That risk also seemed to apply to practice on Friday. Daytona 500 outside pole-winner Martin Truex Jr. was fastest in opening practice, followed by Justin Allgaier and defending Aaron's 499 winner David Ragan. Five cars turned in a lap in excess of 200 mph thanks to the draft.

Happy with their cars and afraid to chance an accident during practice, 20 cars did not participate in the 55-minute second session -- including the three Michael Waltrip Racing cars and Denny Hamlin. Truex and rookie Kyle Larson, who were among those with a 200-mph lap in the first practice, parked their cars for the later session as well.

"We would like to be in the same position as we were (Friday)," Truex said. "At the start of practice we got in front of a line of cars and were able to make a run up there. The difference (Saturday) is that we don't know what everyone else's plan is going to be. Everyone will be trying to do what we did in practice and that's to be in the right position to get the fastest speed.

"And at the same time it's going to be a risky session. Our No. 1 goal right now is to make sure this Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet races on Sunday. If we feel like we're in a danger zone, we'll abort. It really doesn't matter where you start here."

Truex is also among a small group of small teams that present a wild card within the wild card. Several drivers from larger teams noted that in this case, being a single-car team may be a benefit because you don't have a teammate you're forced to depend on, or be accountable to.

"There are a few cars open to who they can draft with and get a tow with and get lucky," Gordon said. "I think (the pole) is going to come from a smaller group. I don't know if being the lead guy is the fastest place to be."

Elliott Sadler, who will start on the front row for Saturday's Aaron's 312 Nationwide Series race said he fully expected a single car team to have a shot at the Sprint Cup pole.

"We saw today, just going out with teammates isn't enough," Sadler said after qualifying. "I think what you'll see [in Cup qualifying], in my humble opinion, is a lot of cat and mouse leaving pit road. … You want to be the back group, never the lead group running.

"I think you're going to see a single car have a good shot at the pole tomorrow."

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth is among a handful of Cup drivers that got a little practice with this style of qualifying for the season-opening NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona in February. However, the experience apparently didn't give him any more sense of comfort or wisdom.

"We did the first round at Daytona in Nationwide and it was a little crazy, but the field is obviously better in Cup," Kenseth said. "I don't know what's going to happen. 

"It should be interesting especially having three rounds. I think obviously the first round is where you're going to have your fast lap times and that one you're going to have to probably make more calculations or more aggressive moves or however you want to put it to get that lap once they start thinning this field out and you get down to 12 or even 25 or 24 or whatever it's going to change a little bit. 

"There's always a potential for a wreck when you put 43 cars out there."

Team Penske's Joey Logano is convinced it's more than just potential.

"I think there will be a point that there are gonna be a lot of cars out there," Logano explained. "I think you have to put your lap up very quick because I think after the first five minutes the top 18 cars or so are probably gonna pit, and not be out there. So the less cars that are on the race track, the harder it is to run that fast lap. 

"I've been working with my teammate Brad [Keselowski], and also [Michael] McDowell some … to kind of figure out what we've got to do to put together a good package for us to run a fast lap and have the right strategy, and also stay out of the crash because I think it's gonna happen.

"I think there will be a wreck within this qualifying session just because the closing rate you're gonna be catching some of these guys. For guys in the middle of the race track and then you're going to the bottom, he decided he wants to get out of the way and goes to the bottom, oh, shoot, you're gonna get in a crash. So you've got to be on your toes throughout the whole session. I think as each session goes it's gonna get a little bit calmer because obviously there are gonna be less cars out there."

The blissful bottom line: "I don’t think anyone knows for sure what's gonna happen," Logano said grinning.

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