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Eye on safety makes qualifying tweak a good move

March 13, 2014, Kenny Bruce,

Bruce: Better to alter the qualifying format proactively

RELATED: NASCAR tweaks qualifying procedure | Official NASCAR press release

It happened sooner than expected. NASCAR on Tuesday announced changes to its 2014 qualifying format after barely three weeks of use.

The newness had yet to wear off.

It was an abrupt about-face for the sanctioning body, coming just days after officials stated there were no changes on the horizon. Give teams time, they said. Give the process time, they said. 

And then on Tuesday they said let's change it.

Many teams were still trying to fully understand the process, how to possibly exploit it, expose and take advantage of any flaws that might be hidden somewhere within. 

Team Penske was ahead of the curve. 

Its drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, were batting a collective .667 in qualifying trim through the first three races, sweeping front row spots at Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Either those folks had found a way to take advantage of the group qualifying format, or the two teams simply have fast drivers and faster cars. Perhaps it's been a little bit of both. 

The format consists of two or three rounds, depending on the length of the track, and provides teams with a pre-determined window of time in each round in which to post a qualifying lap. The fastest from each round continue to advance. 

One of the unintended consequences of the format has been the combination of fast cars making qualifying runs while others, running at a greatly reduced speed, circled the track in an attempt to cool their cars' engines by forcing air through the front grille and openings.

At Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week, where the three-stage process was used for the first time, drivers in the opening round were loggings laps of 190 mph or faster, often while slower cars idled their way around the bottom of the 1.5-mile track. 

It created, according to some drivers, a situation that was both unnecessary and dangerous.

This weekend, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series travel to Bristol Motor Speedway, a tiny, tight, high-banked half-mile track.

Because the track falls into the "less than 1.25 miles in length" category (its racing surface measures 0.533 miles), only two rounds of qualifying will be used to determine the starting lineup for each race. 

But the number of cars looking for clean air and an uncluttered race track remain basically the same. 

In an attempt to eliminate the problem, drivers will no longer be allowed to return to the track for "cool-down" laps. Instead, teams will be permitted the use of a cool-down unit, located outside the car, to reduce heat in engines while on pit road. 

The move isn’t expected to alter the intensity of the new format, but it should make it safer.

NASCAR requires drivers to maintain a minimum speed during races as a safety precaution. Keeping slower cars off the track during qualifying is no different.

Maybe nothing would have happened had no changes been made. Maybe no one would have spun, no one would have cut a tire, no one would have suffered an unexpected parts failure and found themselves spinning, out of control, while coming up on a slower car. 

But what if that had not been the case? 

Too many opportunities for trouble still exist on the track today.

The addition of yet another was not only unwise, it was unnecessary as well.


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