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‘Knockout’ Leaves Some Drivers Feeling Woozy

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 17 2015

Qualifying for the Daytona 500 resulted in an all-Hendrick front row and a lot of others taking shots at the format. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

NASCAR’s revised group qualifying format for the 57th annual Daytona 500 produced a timely pole-winner in Jeff Gordon Sunday amid controversy and questions about “what’s best for the sport” as an entertainment vehicle.

The sanctioning body ditched its traditional albeit time-consuming single-car qualifying format for restrictor plate racing around the high-banked/2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in favor of the “knockout” format popularized by Formula One for road-courses.

A four-time Sprint Cup Series champion, Gordon kicked-off his final full season as driver by emerging from the third and final round as pole-winner via a hot lap of 44.711-seconds/201.293 mph. Gordon’s pole-winning lap was the first over 200 mph for the race since Bill Elliott rocketed around DIS at 210.364 mph in a Ford Thunderbird in 1987.

“This format is crazy and chaotic,” said Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet SS. “It can be extremely rewarding when you have a day like we had, to bring that kind of group effort together.

“In the past, this has been one of the easiest days I’ve had all day long – go out there, hold it wide-open, run a couple laps. It’s all about the team, the car, all the preparation they put into it. All that hard work still goes into this effort but I play a bigger role, the spotter plays a bigger role.”

Gordon’s 78th career pole secured his starting position for the “Great American Race” on Feb. 22 alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who was a miniscule 0.035-seconds behind Sir Jeff.

No Ford Fusion drivers advanced into the top-12. Three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camrys followed the Hendrick Twins. Denny Hamlin finished third and in front of Matt Kenseth, winner of Saturday night’s crash-marred 75-lap Unlimited non-point race, and teammate Kyle Busch. New teammate Carl Edwards placed seventh behind Kasey Kahne in another HMS Chevrolet SS.

Gordon and Johnson will start from the pole during the two 150-mile Budweiser Duel at Daytona races on Thursday night _ Gordon in the first race, Johnson in the second. The Budweiser Duels will establish positions 3-32 for the Daytona 500 starting grid.

Positions 33-36 will go to the four fastest drivers from qualifying who haven’t made the field via their Budweiser Duel efforts, which already has secured Edwards a starting spot. Since Edwards is making his debut in the No. 19 ARRIS Toyota at JGR, there are no 2014 car-owner points to fall back on _ the criteria to fill positions 37-42 for the Daytona 500. If Edwards hadn’t qualified well, he would have been forced to rely upon his Budweiser Duel-race finish to make the field.

“As happy as I am now, it’s because of how we did – and that’s it,” said Edwards, addressing the format. ”I think it just leaves it up to chance. If it’s exciting for the fans and if it’s good that way then it’s good. For us, this is the most stressful way you can qualify. This is the most stressful race of the year and anything can take you out of it. Just glad that we’re in it.”

Four five-minute segments were conducted Sunday, with the field split in two for the opener. The fastest 24 cars on combined times advanced into Round 2, with the top-12 moving into the pole shootout in Round 3. The opening segment was marred by a crash that destroyed several cars and left Clint Bowyer irate. That set the tone for the remaining sessions, during which the cars were pushed away from the pit wall only to sit idle in their tracks or slowly maneuver to find a suitable drafting partner before heading on-track for what amounted to one trouble-free flying lap.

“That worked out exactly as I thought it would,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota. “I was trying to back-up to zero-time; I wanted to be the last one to cross the line so I had points on the racetrack that I knew I needed to be at and I tried to back-up to the 24 (Gordon) and 48 (Johnson) to where they would miss it, but with the draft it picked up the speed and I allowed them to cross the line before it went zero.

“There’s going to be a lot of unfavorable talk about it (the group format) for sure. It can get dangerous when different cars are on different agendas and speeds. We’re either going to have to get better and smarter or it will have to change to make it a little bit safer. Other than that, we all knew for months that this was going to be the case. You tried to do the best you could.”

Gordon, understandably, said he liked the strategy challenge presented by the “wait game” connected to the time element. “It just becomes really intense,” Gordon said. “This feels good for that reason alone. Then you add that it’s the Daytona 500, the benefits that come along with it just being the Daytona 500, the emotion of the announcement I made to start the season. This is my last Daytona 500, this is a very special day.”

Bowyer’s day was anything but after his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota was reduced to scrap in the opening segment pileup triggered by contact with Reed Sorenson’s Team Xtreme Ford. Bowyer criticized Sorenson for his banzai pass for position but saved the brunt of his criticism for the sanctioning body.

“It’s NASCAR’s fault for putting us out in the middle of this crap for nothing,” Bowyer said. “It’s idiotic to be out here doing this anyway. There’s no sense in trying to put on some cute show for whatever the hell this is. These guys have spent six months working on these cars, busting their butts on these cars. It’s stupid. There’s no sense in doing this.”

Stewart-Haas Racing’s four drivers, including reigning Cup champion Kevin Harvick, also ripped the format. Owner/driver Tony Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, said in a tweet the system was “a complete embarrassment for our series.” Teammate Kurt Busch added the format was similar to “shaking up bingo balls.”

The format did produce arguably the most elite front row in race history. Gordon and Johnson have won 10 Cup Series championships between them _ Gordon four/Johnson six _ and five Daytona 500 titles _ Gordon three/Johnson two.

But in the wake of the heated post-qualifying remarks, Johnson was asked if he thought the one-car/one-shot format would be a better fit for NASCAR’s touted season-opening “Super Bowl.”

“Man, it’s tough because I think everybody’s trying to keep an open mind on what’s best for the sport, what creates the most interest,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS. “I guess maybe we should look at viewership numbers and attendance numbers to see if this format supports the risks that the teams are taking, drivers are taking in the cars.

“We say all that, we’re frustrated about today, but we got to race on Thursday. That doesn’t seem to bother people. Maybe it’s just because it’s always been there. So trying to think about the car-owners, the expenses that are into all of this, that Thursday race could be frowned upon in a certain situation.”

The Budweiser Duel at Daytona will air from 7-10 p.m. (EST) Thursday on FoxSports1.

“I don’t know what the right thing is,” said Johnson, who completed the fourth front row sweep for HMS in the Daytona 500. “Fortunately, I drive for a big team, a well-funded team. I would be bummed if we lost our 500 car, but we have good backups. Maybe I don’t have the best point of view on it. Trying to do what’s right for the sport. That’s why I go back to stats. Not trying to take a soft way out.

“At some point in time in order to grow the sport, somebody has to be unhappy. I don’t know where that falls. Hopefully we can look at facts and stats and say, yes, this is better and it is worth the five cars we lost. If it didn’t move the needle, then we should try to rethink things and the five cars we lost wouldn’t be worth it.”

Asked if he was concerned that the perceived entertainment value of the sport seems to go far in determining the rules of competition for its drivers, Johnson said, “At times it seems like it’s in question, for sure. I feel like we got to try, though. We’ve had a lot of change over the years. Look at the last two or three years, there’s been a ton of change. As long as the needle is going in the right way, I guess we’re doing it right. There certainly are plenty of chuckles about that.”

Steve O’ Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president, said in a post-qualifying press conference that series officials would seek-out “feedback from the industry” over the group format at DIS. That would include TV partner Fox Sports, which will conduct a conference call with media Tuesday afternoon with a lineup featuring Eric Shanks, Fox Sports president/COO, and John Entz, Fox Sports executive producer.

“If you look at group qualifying as a whole, we felt it worked really well, but certainly there’s some challenges on superspeedways,” O’Donnell said. “We don’t want to see wrecks of any kind. It’s not lost on us how much work goes into these cars by the teams, the efforts for our biggest race of the year. Was it more exciting? Were there more people talking about qualifying? Hopefully so. What does that result in at the end of the day?”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 17 2015
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