In qualifying, teams may have one eye on the sky
July 25, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Forget that flashy new digital scoring pylon standing on the frontstrech. During the first group qualifying session for the Sprint Cup Series at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, teams might be more focused on the sky.
Every qualifying session at the Brickyard can prove a lesson in armchair meteorology, going back to the single-car runs that have set the starting field every season since the stock cars started rolling here in 1994. Indianapolis might be the most temperature-sensitive venue on the circuit, and during qualifying, timing can be everything -- going out under a cloud or in bright sunshine could mean the difference in several rows on the grid.
On a narrow layout where passing can be at a premium, starting position matters -- only six times in 20 previous races has the winner come from further back than 13th, and Ryan Newman became the third pole winner last season to prevail. All of which opens the possibility that cloud cover could dictate who goes out when during the three group qualifying sessions set to determine the starting lineup for Sunday's race.
"There's no doubt, you want to have the best conditions," said four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon. "This is such a big track, and it takes a lot out of the tires in that one lap, and you want to have the coolest track you possibly can. And if you can catch a cloud, then yeah, you're definitely going to find a lot of speed. We've seen here when we've started qualifying in the morning how fast those early cars are, and just how tough it is to maintain that later in the day."
Indeed, during the era of single-car runs, weather was often a determining factor -- drivers who went out later as the day and the track heated up could find themselves at a disadvantage, although there were times, like last season, when Newman caught a late cloud and won the pole on the final run of the afternoon. Over the years, qualifying has even been moved around on the weekend schedule in an attempt to find a window where conditions would be more equal from the beginning of the session to the end.
Now, in an hour-long group format where teams control when they go out within a segment, it's not outlandish to think that cars might sit on pit road hoping for the right atmospheric conditions before charging onto the track.
"There's potential for it to cloud up and become chaotic as qualifying goes through," Newman said. "… But in the same way, there's times the track can sit for a little bit and get faster. So you might see a burst of cars at the start of qualifying and then, you know -- as qualifying goes at tracks of this size, the windows for opportunities become smaller as the timing changes. So I think in the end, it's going to be get clean air, and you got what you got."
Teams will still likely aim to get in a lap amid as little traffic as possible, and the window for sky-watching will of course grow narrower as qualifying progresses and the segments get shorter.
"Three rounds here is a lot the way the tires drop off," Matt Kenseth said, "and as temperature-sensitive as the track is, and as sensitive as the cars are to traffic as well.”
The format may have changed, but at Indianapolis, the emphasis on qualifying remains. Kenseth was among the drivers who made mock qualifying runs in the lone Sprint Cup practice session held Friday, just to guard against potential inclement weather Saturday afternoon. The deepest any Brickyard winner has started is 27th, which was where Gordon rolled off the starting grid en route to his third victory here in 2001.
"Track position is so important here. It's so hard to pass here," Gordon said. "And because of that, what happens is the pit crew becomes crucial. The pit strategy becomes crucial. And the speed of the car, especially in qualifying, becomes crucial."