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Crew chief analysis: Preparing for group qualifying

February 27, 2014, Chris Rice, Special to,

Crew chief Chris Rice offers a look at the strategy for the new qualifying format

Editor's note: Chris Rice, crew chief for the No. 99 Rheem Toyota for RAB Racing and driver James Buescher in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, has joined as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here is his first-person analysis on the top storylines heading into the race weekend at Phoenix International Raceway:

Planning for the new qualifying format at Phoenix this weekend started for me on Monday. It's great for the fans but for us crew chiefs, there's a lot more strategy to play with.

At Phoenix, you're going to have situations where your tires don't start coming in until Lap 4 or 5, so you're going to be out there running strong and then somebody's going to pull up in front of you or come out of the pits to disrupt your momentum. You're going to get down there to Turn 3 and you're going to be running 170 mph, they're going to be running 100 mph, and it messes your good lap up.

The Daytona qualifying that we went through, we didn't know what to expect. You couldn't really do too much homework on it or figure out how to work it. I probably made four or five mistakes personally in being prepared for that, but with the rain situation playing out like it did, we didn't really get a full run-through. The good thing about this qualifying is, when I talked to NASCAR last weekend, they're open to suggestions on how to make it better or make it different.

With it being a smaller track, we'll only have two sessions to play with at Phoenix, and our qualifying will definitely be different than it's ever been. You've got to get your speed down into the top 12, and fast. You're going to have a lot of leader changes. You're going to have a lot of changes on the top 12 -- movement at the bubble is going to be in effect, so that's going to be cool to watch.

The slower cars out there are going to affect the faster cars more in qualifying than they ever have, or that they ever have in practice. You don't see it as much in practice because they don't zoom in on it, but now you'll see it. I'll tell you right now, if Tony Stewart's out there going for a pole run and somebody slower pulls out in front of him, Smoke's going to be mad and rightfully so. But that's the thing you're going to have in this qualifying format that you're going to have to overcome. There are so many scenarios that can happen. 

Qualifying will now be just like a practice session, but you'll see -- especially with guys trying to get into the race -- they'll be running more laps. They'll try to come in and make an adjustment in the first 25 minutes and make more laps. 

My goal is pretty simple -- to make the top 12 immediately, then just sit and keep your tires cool and fresh for the following segment so you can have a chance to sit on the pole. That's going to be the key -- hope your car is fast enough to be in the top 12 early so you can just sit. The guy that's ranked 13th or 14th, he's going to go back out and try to make it into the top 12. He should, but he's going to have more laps on his tires for the following session. So it's going to be really cool to watch, tough for TV to keep up with and it's going to be a challenge for us to work around. Once we all figure it out, it's going to be really fun. 

You're going to learn more now Saturday morning from your qualifying session for the race, whereas before you weren't able to. We used to tape up, pump our tires up ... you're not going to be able to do a lot of that now. You might put a little bit of tape on, but you're not going to make a full-blown qualifying effort. You're going to better learn the race track and know what you're car's doing to move forward in the race, and if you're on the bubble of 13th, it's going to be fun to be able to go back out and try to make that little extra bit of speed up. 

We're going to have to look into what's the best scenario, what lap is the fastest on our new tires, where do our air pressures need to be in order to make that fastest lap in that amount of time, how much tape can we run for four or five laps and not get it too hot -- we'll take a good 40 minutes and try to figure that all out. Before you could do all that with a mock run in 10 minutes. It's all going to start on Thursday. 

For race day, we've got a good notebook for Phoenix after the reconfiguration a few years back. We ran 11th place there with Alex Bowman last year, and we're going back with pretty much the same setup. Thank goodness Goodyear is going to run the same tire going back; it just makes a heck of a difference. With Goodyear going to a green tire, I foresee us staying with the same tire at several tracks this year. It's green, they can do whatever they do to discard it and it's not hurting the earth. So it's good from that aspect, but also that we get to go back with the same, consistent tire. 

It's pretty cool how they've structured these races at the beginning of the year, because you've got Daytona, a speedway, you've got Phoenix, which is a mile short track, then Vegas, a mile-and-a-half, then we shoot to Bristol, which is a real short track and then we go to California for a two-mile track. 

If you look at it, we've covered all our types of tracks in the first five races. It gives you a good notebook to move forward the whole rest of the season. We get another piece to that puzzle this weekend at Phoenix.

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