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KO Qualifying Snafus Cost Top Contenders Big At Charlotte Motor Speedway

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 23 2014

There were not many smiles around the Stewart-Haas Racing team after qualifying at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday night. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

CONCORD, N.C. – Guess some teams still have some minor tweaking to do in their approaches to the new Knockout Qualifying thing. In the case of the teams of Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, maybe some major tweaks.

Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team and Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing team both advanced into the third and final round of KO qualifying for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 on Thursday night. Harvick, in fact was the fastest qualifier in the second round.

But as the clock wound down on the final 5-minute session, Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet and Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota sat and waited. Waited too long as it turned out. After taking to the track with under a minute to go in the session, neither were able to make it to the start/finish line and take the green flag by the time the session timed out.

Good-bye pole position, which is not horrible in a 600-miler. But also, good-bye best pit stall, which comes in handy in races of all lengths in Sprint Cup.

Neither Harvick or Kenseth stuck around to talk about being late to the green, but pole-winner Jimmie Johnson did have a reaction.

“That’s shocking they didn’t make it out,” Johnson said. “I’m sure there is an interesting meeting going on right now somewhere.”

The weather was hot and humid at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the daylight hours on Thursday. As drivers left the track after practices, many talked about the difficulty of finding the right setups for their cars. Some seemed baffled.

Some of the confusion remained in place during the first round of KO qualifying, which began with the sun still above the grandstands and heating up large portions of the track.

Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion and multi-time winner at CMS, failed to advance to the second round. He seemed more baffled than angry.

“It just disappoints us,” Gordon said after reaching the media “bull pen”. “We know our car is much better than this. I think these are about as challenging conditions as you can have when you have a really hot day like this. The sun goes down and it’s a total guessing game and we completely guessed wrong. We just missed the set-up. The car has plenty of speed in it. I’m not concerned about the race. I know that we can work our way through there and be really strong in the race, but we just have to get the balance right at the start of the race and make sure that we are there at the end. It’s just more challenging to do that from where we are going to be starting.”

Jamie McMurray, who won at Charlotte last Saturday night in the Sprint All-Star Race, also failed to advance out of the first round of qualifying. He and his Chip Ganassi Racing team also seemed to have problems with the odd conditions.

“We unloaded and were really loose,” McMurray said. “We made quite a few runs on the first set of tires. We put our next set of tires on and the car was really tight. It’s really hard to adjust on that. And then we were just way tight in qualifying. I don’t know if the track has tightened up. It seemed like it was a pretty big change from practice and then I felt like we took a huge swing at it again to free it up and it almost seemed worse. I don’t know. Just way off there we haven’t been that far off in qualifying all year long.”

It’s almost certain that the qualifying snafus suffered by Harvick and Kenseth were an indirect result of the challenging conditions. The sun had sunk below the front stretch grandstands by the time the final qualifying session started, but the track takes time to cool down and by waiting until the last possible minute to take to the track, teams hope to increase their grip levels.

“I guess you are just waiting to try to get the coolest open race track that you can,” Kasey Kahne, who qualified third, said. “For a night like tonight I’m not sure that last 30 seconds how critical that is, but you are looking for an open track as well, so that is what they were doing. We were really close at Kansas on a second run. I think we made it by five or six seconds before they threw the red so we got to run that lap. You definitely push it as close as you can to get your tires cooled off and try to get the coolest race track conditions, but I’m surprised that neither one of them did in this session.  Twelve cars, five minutes I mean I’m surprised.”

Harvick and Kenseth just waited about 10 second to long.

How can that happen? Johnson said he wasn’t sure.

Asked if his Hendrick Motorsports team has people who monitor ticking clocks in qualifying, Johnson said, “Oh yeah, we have someone on pit road. Chad (Knaus, his crew chief) choses to be on top of the transporter where he can feel more calm over there and he can get a more global view of what is going on. Maybe there is something in that that is helpful. I would assume everybody is on the radio counting down. Listening to what NASCAR is saying and then relaying that information.”

Kahne said he could only imagine what was going on in the Kenseth and Harvick haulers.

“That would definitely not go over well if we missed it,” Kahne said.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 23 2014
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