Knock-out qualifying takes on first road course
June 20, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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SONOMA, Calif. – It's hard to tell who is more curious about how NASCAR's new knock-out group qualifying format will play out on its first road course test Saturday at Sonoma Raceway: the fans or the drivers.
"It will be interesting. I think out of all the places we have been to, this will be -- I won’t say crazy -- but I think it is hard to determine," said JTG Daugherty Racing driver AJ Allmendinger.
That much everyone seemed to agree upon.
And harmony and courtesy will be key as large groups of cars takes to the 1.99-mile, 10-turn circuit through the Northern California rolling hills for Saturday's new-look qualifying. Drawing an early spot on track may be key to getting the fast lap – clean track and no traffic. But there will be more variables than at other venues.
The new elimination format consists of two rounds, the first 30-minutes long with the fastest 12 cars advancing to the final session. Those cars will have 10 minutes to settle the top 12 positions on the grid.
And judging by Friday's two practice sessions, any of the manufacturers are capable of winning the pole. Toyota's Clint Bowyer – the 2012 Sonoma winner – was fastest in final practice, followed by Chevy's Paul Menard and Ford's Carl Edwards. Bowyer's speed of 95.988 mph was a full 1-mph faster than last year's pole speed set by Jamie McMurray and also markedly better than the track qualifying record lap of 95.262 mph set by Marcos Ambrose in 2012.
Unlike other types of tracks, qualifying up front on this course has historically meant finishing up front. More race winners have come from the front row starting position – eight winners in 25 races. And pole sitters have won the race more than any other starting position (five times or 20 percent).
Based on what he saw in practice on Friday, two-time race winner Tony Stewart expects qualifying to be orderly if not predictable.
"I don't think it'll be a big drama," said Stewart, who was ninth fastest in the opening practice. "I think all the drivers will be pretty courteous. Even in practice, nobody knew who was trying to make qualifying runs and nobody knew who was on tires, so I saw a lot of guys that were being pretty patient, which is kind of uncharacteristic for here, but I thought everybody in practice showed a lot of patience and a desire to work with each other to make sure they’re not messing each other's laps up.
"I think it will be that way in qualifying as well.”
Bowyer agreed with that assessment, however, he also believes qualifying will be a little more unpredictable. For him, it's not just about posting your fast lap, but making sure you're not interfering with someone else's.
"That's one of the cool things about this track, you have to take things as they come, nobody knows," said Bowyer, driver of the No. 15 5-hour ENERGY Toyota, whose Michael Waltrip Racing team has won the last two Sonoma races.
"It's going to be a difficult situation to make sure that you're courteous to the other drivers. Get your lap in and get out of the way. That's the single biggest thing that I think could potentially be a problem here is trying to get back around to where you're getting off the race track and not messing somebody's lap up."