Strategies brewing among crew chiefs as they look for competitive advantage
Read more: Mobil 1 Technology Series | Breaking down the 2014 qualifying format | More tweaks to format
The new "knockout" qualifying procedure instituted by NASCAR for 2014 is dynamic, increases the competitive attraction for the teams and fans and gives track operators and television partners a Friday show.
It also has spun the heads of drivers, crew chiefs and engine tuners to a fare-thee-well.
"Do I use a qualifying setup, or do I make it a race-day setup?" is one of the questions being asked. "How do I keep the engine cool with multiple laps and only a five-minute break?" is another.
Perhaps the biggest one is going to be, "When do I go out, how often do I go out and what happens if everybody goes at once?"
The rules, at least, are simple:
At tracks measuring 1.25 miles in length or larger, there will be three rounds of qualifying. The first will last 25 minutes and all cars will be involved. From that, the top 24 cars will advance to Round 2. Those that don't move on will be lined up in descending order.
Then comes the first five-minute break, where three crewmen will be allowed over the wall to make adjustments but not tire changes. In addition, one crewman will be allowed to make adjustments during qualifying sessions.
The second round is 10 minutes long, and the top 12 will move on to the final round. The 12 that don’t make it will be installed in positions 13-24.
After a five-minute break, the final 12 cars will duke it out for the Coors Light Pole position over five minutes.
At tracks of less than 1.25 miles and at road courses, there will be two rounds, the first 30-minute session to determine the top 12 and the second to see who wins the Coors Light Pole position. There's a 10-minute break between the sessions.
There's strategy that has yet to be developed, but it isn't for lack of thinking about it, you can be sure.
"There's so many smart people in this sport that are putting so much thought into it, that when we get there, we're all going to be thinking the same thing: waiting for somebody to make a move," said Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Matt Kenseth. "It's going to be a lot of unknowns. There's going to be some bad Saturdays, and it's not because your car is slow."
Technically, the biggest challenge will be keeping one set of Goodyear Eagles in shape to post multiple fast laps over an hour's time.
"New tires are so important," Ratcliff said. "If you don't get that first lap in, we could see some top-performing cars not make the second session. It's not because they aren't fast, it's just misfortune."
Another big question is, what kind of fluids do you use to make the speed you need and keep your engine from turning itself inside out?
"I think a lot of that is going to come down to the engine guys, if we can use qualifying oil (provided by Mobil 1) or how much temperature they want to see," said Donnie Wingo, crew chief for the Wood Brothers and driver Trevor Bayne. "It's still going to be tire management. You only have one set of tires for the whole three sessions.
"It's going to be a process."
Part of that process is figuring out how much tape you want to use when qualifying, said Dave Rogers, crew chief for Kyle Busch.
"When you qualify, you can tape the grille off solid," he said. "You add a ton of front downforce, and that makes the cars free, so you have to tighten them back up. With three rounds of qualifying and multiple laps, you're not going to be able to add all that tape. You have to take some off, which means you won't tighten up as much mechanically."
Remember, instead of two laps at a bite, you might have to run 15-20 under the new rules. Tire management is the new magic bullet, and you still have to have the car fast as it can be.
"You still have all your other adjustments," Rogers said. "In qualifying, you dial in your camber and get really aggressive with it and it won’t blow up in two or three laps. I have to make the right front last 50-60 laps in the race, so you'll still have a qualifying setup but you won’t be quite as aggressive."
Another factor that involves the engine is the cool-down period. NASCAR has not allowed the teams to put cold water in the engines to get them cool during or between sessions, so that's another factor that crew chiefs and engine tuners have to contend with.
"Without using a cool-down unit, putting cold water into it, you're not going to have enough time to cool it down in the five-minute break," Rogers said. "You have to take some tape off."
There are many permutations that have to be solved, once the process is set in motion at Phoenix International Raceway.
There are some rules that the teams are not yet sure about, but NASCAR will have those in place before Speedweeks is over.
The trio of tires, tape and timing will require some trial and error.
If you don't take care of the tires, you're done early. If you have too much tape, or not enough, you're too slow. If you miss the timing and put up your fast lap early rather than late, you'll be starting in the middle.
Or you could play it right and win the pole simply by hitting the timing just right and factoring in the other teams' errors.
Once somebody finds the secret sauce, so to speak, it could be big, Ratcliff said.
"You could see an organization that hits on something and it is lights out," he quipped. "It's endless, and it's going to keep the competition from being stagnant -- and it's going to keep one or two teams from being as dominant as they might have been in the past."
It seems with the new Chase format and the knockout qualifying rounds that NASCAR is adding freedom for teams. Rogers said that's a huge step forward.
"I'm a fan of less regulation," he said. "You look back in this sport, you have your Smokey Yunicks, your Junior Johnsons, who were extremely creative. ... Now you find that a large section of the rulebook has been ripped up and thrown away and it allows some of that creativity to come back.
"It's going to be a lot of work for several months, and that's a challenge, but it's getting back to what this sport was founded on: less regulation, let us race."