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NASCAR Modifies Superspeedway Qualifying

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 30 2015

When the Sprint Cup cars take to the track next at Talladega, the qualifying session will have a different look. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

In the wake of criticism leveled by several top Sprint Cup Series drivers at Daytona International Speedway last month, NASCAR unveiled modifications to the qualifying format for superspeedway events across all three national series on Monday.

The updated format will take effect at Talladega Superspeedway for the NASCAR XFINITY Series and Sprint Cup Series events next month on the high-banked, 2.66-mile layout in Alabama.

The changes are the result of driver complaints over the “knockout qualifying” format used for the season-opening Daytona 500 at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in February, where the post-time trial debate raged about “what’s best for the sport” as an entertainment vehicle.

Qualifying for May’s Talladega Superspeedway races, as well as the July events at Daytona International Speedway, will consist of the following:

– Two rounds of qualifying, with the top-12 posted lap speeds advancing to the second round.

– Race vehicles taking one, timed lap in each round of qualifying.

– Each race vehicle will be released in a predetermined timed interval as determined by NASCAR, with the sanctioning body reserving the right to have more than one vehicle engaging in qualifying runs at the same time.

– Qualifying order for the first round will be determined by a random draw; final-round qualifying order is determined by slowest-to-fastest speeds from the first round.

– A 10-minute break will occur between the first qualifying round and the final round.

– Upon completion of the first qualifying round, the field will be set with positions 13 and beyond determined from first-round qualifying speed.

– The 12 fastest vehicles from the first round will have their speeds reset for the final round with starting positions 1-12 determined by the fastest laps in the final round.

– NASCAR will impound race vehicles following each qualifying lap; vehicles advancing to the final round will be allowed to adjust tape and utilize a cool-down unit during the 10-minute break only.

The sanctioning body ditched its traditional albeit time-consuming single-car qualifying format for restrictor plate racing around DIS in favor of the “knockout” format popularized by Formula One for road-courses for its so-called “Super Bowl.”

Four five-minute segments were conducted, 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.

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon of Hendrick Motorsports emerged as pole-sitter in his final start at DIS but termed the format “crazy and chaotic.”

Bowyer, whose primary Michael Waltrip Racing superspeedway car was destroyed, blamed NASCAR for “putting us out in the middle of this crap for nothing. 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.”

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.”

Carl Edwards of Joe Gibbs Racing said the format “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.”

Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson qualified alongside Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. 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.”

Qualifying procedures for the 2016 Daytona 500 will be announced at a later date.

The XFINITY and Sprint Cup series will compete at Talladega May 1-3. Cup qualifying will air live May 2 on FOX at 1 p.m. (EDT). The Winn Dixie 300 and GEICO 500 will air live on FOX on May 2 (3 p.m. EDT) and May 3 (1 p.m. EDT), respectively.

“We are set for another incredible weekend at Talladega,” Grant Lynch, track chairman, said in a statement. “For more than 25 years, we have had different body style configurations of the cars and different-sized restrictor plates but one thing has remained constant _the competition on the racetrack has been as good as anywhere in the world. That is why we continue to hold the records for number of lead changes (88) and most drivers to ever lead laps (29).”

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will utilize the new format for the first time when the series returns to Talladega for the fred’s 250 Powered by Coca-Cola, along with the Cup Series’ Alabama 500, Oct. 23-25.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 30 2015
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