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Drivers Hope KO Qualifying Doesn’t KO Qualifiers

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 2 2014

Jimmie Johnson said Saturday's qualifying session at Talladega could be on the exciting side. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer

TALLADEGA, Ala. – One of the most-anticipated qualifying sessions in the history of NASCAR will occur Saturday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway.

The new “knock out” format has stirred so much interest that the first-ever round of Sprint Cup time trials under the new three-round procedure at a restrictor plate track will be broadcast live on network television.

It’s also left the top names in the sport scratching their heads over how it will unfold as the field is set for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499.

“To win the pole, you’re going to have to go out there and race,” said defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “And the run that you can get on a group that is a football field-or-two ahead of you is so dramatic, that I think a 10 or 12-car line won’t be as fast as somebody who falls way back in the pack and has a chance over a lap or two to pull up into the pack.

“That’s what everybody is going to be trying to do. Bailing out of the gas, breaking up the pack and things like that are all possible.

“It’s going to be exciting for sure.”

With the high risk of torn up sheet metal to be the norm during Saturday’s historic qualifying session, Matt Kenseth was asked if some drivers might intentionally go less-than full throttle.

“I don’t know, I think it’s more going to be a team decision more so than a driver decision necessarily,” Kenseth said.

“Obviously, you need all the cars or a lot of cars and a good draft to pull up and get that lap.

“I think you’re going to try to get the best lap you can without putting yourself in jeopardy to get your primary car torn up. This is one of those races where you can go from the front to the back or the other way around more easily than other tracks.”

NASCAR’s loss has turned into Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s gain.

Nationwide Insurance has opted to reallocate market dollars from the title sponsorship of NASCAR’s junior circuit and directly on to the side and hood of Earnhardt Jr’s. No. 88 Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series beginning in 2015.

“I think it says a lot about the direction that Nationwide wanted to go after their involvement in the sport for some time,” Earnhardt said. “(Nationwide) wanted to move forward and do something new with their objectives.

“I also believe, from what I’ve been hearing behind the scenes, that the opportunities and search for a title sponsor in the Nationwide Series won’t be a challenging one and that there is some good interest there.”

Earnhardt sees this as a growing trend in the sport.

“For a long time, there was a lot more interest to be an official sponsor of the sport and more tied to the sport as a whole,” he said. “Now, we are seeing a lot more interest in guys wanting to get back on the quarter panels and hoods of these cars.

“I think that is really important to the health of the sport overall.”

Fairhope, Ala. resident Grant Enfinger hopes to make history on Saturday morning when the green flag waves over the International Motorsports Hall of Fame 200 for the ARCA Racing Series.

If Enfinger wins, he will be the first driver in the history of the series to begin a season with four consecutive victories.

He took the first step to accomplish the feat when he captured the pole during qualifying on Friday. The qualifying session happened to be the first “knockout style” format ever in ARCA.

Enfinger admitted that he ruffled the feathers of some of the other drivers in his pack during his run.

“We tried to talk through strategy the whole time,” he said. “But some of those guys are upset. They don’t feel like I held up my end of the bargain.

“But at the end of the day, it is what it is. We’re lucky enough to be sitting on the pole here at Talladega. I’m not going to let any of that stuff ruin it. We’re here to win and, hopefully, we can do it again.”

– Jeff Hood can be reached at jhood@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 2 2014
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