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‘Knockout Qualifying’ Gets A Split Decision At Phoenix

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 1 2014

Jimmie Johnson keeps an eye on 'knockout qualifying' at Phoenix on Friday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

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.

But heart-stopping?

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 jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 1 2014


  • Gina24 says:

    I didn’t bother to watch qualifying, I figured that it would be so confusing that really I’d rather just wait and find out where everyone started when it was over. Yes, it would be nice if Fox gave the fans watching decent information about what is actually happening, rather than their usual pontificating or cheerleading. I simply can’t listen to the buffoons in the booth, not the ones at Fox or ESPN either.

  • NASCAR Nutered Fords says:

    Simple NASCAR tells the drivers who drive around slowing on the bottom of the track to park it. No more tape, the teams know they are not making one run anymore. Any team caught running slow is knocked out of qualifying and will start dead last on the field. Any other driver who pulls the same stunt replaces the last place driver. The point is you don’t want to run you start at the tail end of the field each week.

    If the teams want to sit on pit road until a few minutes left fine, but no more of this bogus running 30 mph on the bottom of the track. I guess the teams are not so smart after if they think they can tape off the grille of their cars and run these types of qualifying sessions.

    The last thing is once qualified the car can not be touched and must start the race in that condition with those tires. So if a team want to tape up their car they will start the race with the same tape on the grille and to make sure that has teeth there will be no pit stops allowed for the first 20 laps of every race. That will put an end to the teams taping up the front of their cars.

    In fact ban the use of tape period even during the race. Back when the cars used the same sheet metal as street cars teams did not have tape all over the front end. The cars looked better because they really were cars people could buy. The sheet metal was the same as the showroom cars and the templates were taken right off of cars from a showroom.

    The teams seem to want to destroy NASCAR as much as France and Helton do. No wonder the sport has lost so many fans.

    • Marty C says:

      Actually back in the day it was illegal to put tape on the grill. However we still blocked off the grill, we just did it from the inside where you couldn’t see it. We used pieces of aluminum. They were various heights so you could block off 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, whatever you wanted plus where you put it, top, bottom, middle, made a huge difference in handling. We used it for both qualifying and the race. Also back then your cooling was done by a fan driven by the engine. For qualifying we used a flat fan instead of one with pitched blades because it increased the horsepower.

  • sal says:

    The other alternative to letting teams use coolers between runs is to not allow any of them to tape up the grills on the cars. All would have equal aero, the engines wouldn’t heat up so much, and would cool down faster. Seems pretty simple to me. Also, TV has to figure out a way to give information to viewers as the cars are running, and not just concentrate on the top 12. But then, that’s a problem they have all year with every race, isn’t it?