‘Knockout Qualifying’ Gets A Split Decision At Phoenix
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Turns out, there was no need to make use heart needles during the Sprint Cup Series’ debut of “knockout qualifying”. The new procedure was interesting but hardly the fuse-blowing fun-o-rama that some had predicted/hoped it would be.
“I don’t know,” driver Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports said when asked about it afterward. “It is different.”
NASCAR announced it would go the system during the off season. The stated reason was to enliven Cup weekends by kind of making qualifying a race in itself.
In a statement released when the announcement was made in January, NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said, “We believe the timing is right for a new qualifying format across our three national series,” “This style of group qualifying has all the makings of being highly competitive and more engaging to our fans in the stands and those watching on television and online.”
Group qualifying has long been used in other forms of racing. Like IndyCar and Formula One.
Under NASCAR’s take on the process:
– On tracks of 1.25 miles in length or longer, all cars will qualify collectively for up to 25 minutes, with the top 24 based on fastest laps advancing for a subsequent 10-minute session. The top 12 from that group will advance to the final, five-minute round.
– On tracks shorter than 1.25 miles in length, all cars will begin qualifying in a 30-minute group session, with the field narrowed to the top 12 for a 10-minute final period. Cars or trucks knocked out after the initial round will be sorted based on their times from the first round, in descending order. The fastest remaining cars from the second session will earn positions 13th through 24th based on their times posted in qualifying in descending order.
The system was not used in the season-opening Daytona 500 because of that race’s traditional format, and it won’t be used in exhibition races.
Many competitors endorsed the system when it was announced. They liked the concept – especially those who were Formula One fans.
In the weeks leading up to its use Friday at the Phoenix International Raceway short track, site of this weekend’s event, fans and media and competitors alike seemed excited about its debut.
TV did its part to stock the hype shelves in the minutes leading up to the green flag at PIR Friday. One of the Fox folks said pit road was about to look like the parking lot at Wal-Mart on Black Friday as the cars were parked noses-to-the wall on pit road.
But when the green flag dropped, pit road looked like a Monday night at Dairy Queen. Drivers calmly backed their cars out of their stalls and took to the track and not even all of them.
Once under way, the format proved difficult to follow – especially, one would imagine, for those not accustomed to watching it in other series.
In terms of an event, it looked more like a short practice session but with more cheerleading.
Drivers toed the line with their comments afterward. They know its purpose.
Still, many raised concerns about things like cars overheating – and subsequent slow of traffic to cool engine down – during the sessions. Those teams want NASCAR to allow use of coolant-cycling generators to be used in the pits.
“The cooling is dumb,” driver Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing said. “They needed to let everybody cool the cars down so you don’t have those cars running half speed out there. We have been telling them that for weeks. The concept is really cool, but they need to let you cool the cars down and that way you don’t have to have all those cars running around at half speed. One of these times somebody is going to get clobbered in the back. The concept is awesome, I like the pace of qualifying, but they need to let us cool them down so we don’t have the cars out there running around at half speed.”
Also, some teams opted to not take full advantage of track times because they were not allowed to change tires.
Others talked about potential problems crashes and yellow flags could cause.
Group qualifying is a good move by NASCAR. Certainly it is better than the droning version of qualifying which had been pro forma since forever. It is a good thing that qualifying will now be started and ended much more quickly than the old glacier races which qualifying turned into at places like Talladega and Michigan.
As fans – and television – start to understand the process, it will doubtlessly become more palatable. And we can be pretty certain that NASCAR will deal with the problems which occurred on Friday.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. offered a fairly typical answer when asked his thoughts on the fun factor of “knockout”. “I thought it was pretty fun to be involved in it,” he said.
Then again, racing may be doomed to being just “pretty fun” for a generation of potentials fans that is used to being able to digitally rip other people’s internal organs out form the comfort of their sofas.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org