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Vickers, Confusion Reign In Talladega Qualifying

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 18 2014

Brian Vickers won the pole at Talladega on Saturday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

A non-Chaser won the pole on Saturday for Sunday’s GEICO 500 Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, but a Chaser in need qualified second fastest.

The non-Chaser who won the pole for the final Contender Round race was Brain Vickers of Michael Waltrip Racing. He put down a lap at 196.129 mph in earning his first pole of the season.

Then there was six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who likely needs a victory to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase. The Hendrick Motorsports driver qualified on the outside of the front row with a lap at 195.732 mph.

Johnson is 11th in the Chase standings on the eve of the race at Talladega, where he has won twice during his career.

After posting a much needed fast qualifier, Johnson took a swipe at the qualifying process – which featured four five-minute sessions, with the field narrowed to 24 and then 12 drivers – at the 2.66-mile, high-banked Talladega track.

“Yeah I’m definitely thrilled with the results although it was confusing,” Johnson said, “and I wasn’t sure that it was going to be any better than 11th or 12th. And I ended up second. So there was just a lot of jockeying going on those two laps and trying to set-up your fun and against the clock and confusion inside of my car and how many laps were left or where the clock was. I didn’t see the lights. My spotter spotting a group of cars going by and Chad (Knaus, crew chief) was trying to give me info. And finally they stopped talking and got in the gas off of (Turn) 4 and I realized I still had another lap to go and was able to pull back up to the group of cars in front of me, somehow; and I ended up second.

“If it is exciting and the fans do enjoy it and viewership on television was up, I think we’re all willing to go out there and roll the dice each time for this. But, inside the car, it was just a totally different experience. But pit road pick is very important, I think, because we’ll do lots of fuel-only and lots of two-tire stops and it’s easy to get in harm’s way here leaving your pit box as others are coming in, so I’m happy about that. And having track position is great to start the race. It’s just not that easy to hang onto it here. But we’ll start up there and see what we can do.”

AJ Allmendinger (195.496 mph), who qualified third, also was not thrilled with the qualifying format at NASCAR’s biggest track.

“I kind of agree with what Jimmie said,” Allmendinger said. “If the fans like, it and it gets more viewers on TV, and if our sponsors get more recognition on a Friday or Saturday or whenever we do this, then to me it is worth it. If not, then to me there is no reason to go out there and take another chance to wreck a race car. I guess that would be up to what TV and what radio and what kind of viewership we actually get for it.”

Johnson, who shared the media center dais with Allmendinger during post-qualifying interviews, said, “I definitely agree. You could actually turn it into a race. I know there were a few guys bumped out that were kind of a surprise that you wouldn’t expect the No. 17 (Ricky Stenhouse) or the No. 51 (Justin Allgaier). So, maybe a race like you have in Daytona for the 500 would be more fair. But at the same time, what the competitors want versus everybody else is usually different, as we all know (laughs). And the best way to go about it from a competition side is the single car runs. The fastest car is on the pole and on down through the field. It’s that fine balance I think we’re trying to find in today’s world of balancing eyeballs watching versus what the competition is in the garage area and what the garage wants to see.”

Vickers, on the other hand, loved qualifying on Saturday.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “I thought that coming to three (laps) to go that we had literally no shot. We were way back – like a half a straightaway behind the whole field, and they all checked up and gave me a chance and gave me a run. I really get no credit for it.  I just tried not to wreck.

“(Crew chief) Billy (Scott) and all the guys did a great job with the car and Billy had a strategy and a plan—we stuck to it even when I thought we were crazy and we were going to be in trouble. We stuck to his plan. My spotter did a great job on top of the tower and we found some speed.”

With Talladega being Talladega – a place were leads can change ever lap – the most significant aspect of qualifying well is pit stall selection.

“It gives us a great pit stall pick, which will help,” Johnson said. “It seems like there will be a lot of fuel-only or two-tire stops, so that will give us a nice pit lane pick. Maintaining track position is hard to do here, there are comers and goers all day long—but what a weird qualifying session. There is no way around it.”

Ryan Blaney, who qualified fourth, will start his second Sprint Cup race in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford as he prepares for his first season at NASCAR’s highest level with the Wood Brothers next year.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. who believes he needs a win at Talladega to make the next round of the Chase, failed to advance from the first round of qualifying and will start 29th. Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Jeff Gordon failed to arrive at the start/finish line before the five-minute clock expired in their first session and didn’t record a fast timed lap.

They’ll start 39th, 40th, 41st and 42nd, respectively, in Sunday’s race, all on owner points provisionals.

“I think everyone is confused,” said Logano, who was drafting to the flag with Kyle Busch but got there approximately a half-second late. “We worked with Kyle and got a good run and drafted off the right guys and were fast enough to make it, but we just didn’t get across the line in time.”

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 18 2014
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