Cup Qualifying Continues To Not Work

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 31 2019
Jimmie Johnson picked up his first pole of the season when he led qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – Jimmie Johnson’s morale-boosting, pole-winning lap around Texas Motor Speedway Friday couldn’t disguise the inconvenient truth that group qualifying in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series remains a cluster.

In official NASCAR-speak, that translates to “a work in progress,” a phrase which conjurs images of the gone-but-unlamented Car of Tomorrow initiative.

Despite a series of revisions announced Monday afternoon by the sanctioning body to spice-up the Busch Pole Award show, Cup qualifying played-out as a pit road parking lot for most of the three sessions. The resulting dash to beat-the-expiring clock produced no more than two hot laps around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval, reviving debate about striking a balance between entertainment and competition.

“It’s like a three or four-edge sword because the first reaction is single-car,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 fielded by Hendrick Motorsports. “If we do single-car, the teams are then going to work so hard to make the cars slippery for single-car then it’s four or five times the work to go from qualifying to race trim.  Maybe if it’s single-car impound; if you have to race what you qualify, that might be a way to control that a bit more. That would be a suggestion to consider for Michigan.”

Johnson’s surprising dominance of Friday’s lone practice and subsequent sweep of all three qualifying rounds for Sunday’s 23rd annual O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 certainly amped-up fans of the struggling seven-time Cup champion.  Johnson limped into the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex after finishing two laps off of Brad Keselowski’s winning pace around Martinsville Speedway’s half-mile oval last Sunday.

“I had so much support on Social Media,” Johnson deadpanned during his post-qualifying presser. “There were so many nice people talking about me and how good of a driver I am and how young I am. It was a great week.”

NASCAR added to it via its revamped qualifying policies/deterrence measures, emailed in a memo to the teams and effective for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Xfinity Series and Cup Series events in Cowtown. Sunday’s race, scheduled for 334 laps/501 miles, will be televised by FOX beginning at 2:30 p.m. (EDT), with additional coverage on MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

A review of those rules: Any driver not taking a lap during a qualifying round _ no matter if it’s the first, second or third session _ will have all previous laps disallowed and be forced to start from the tail of the field in that series event. A driver previously could fall back on his/her time from an earlier round, a provision that gave Austin Dillon the Busch Pole Award at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., as fastest driver from Round 2.

“I think we all knew that there would be some challenges with this rules package,” Johnson said. “We all know that for television we don’t want single-car. We’re just dealing with some issues that we’re all trying to work through collectively, and I think NASCAR is trying to keep an open mind and they don’t want to overreact. We’re competitors and we’re trying to work the system the best we can. If rulings come down, I think we’re just going to have to be open-minded to it.

“But I think once you get in that final round, at least this is what happened in California, you’re like man, it’s either 12th or the pole. You make that final round, you’re going to risk it all. And today that waiting game certainly was going on.

“It’s so hard for NASCAR to pick a way to call this or officiate it. It’s just tricky. And I appreciate the fans being open-minded to this as it evolves and teams, NASCAR, media; it’s just a moving target. We know it’s not ideal, but we’re all trying to make the most of it.”

Additionally, any driver found in NASCAR’s judgment to be blocking pit road in a way that prohibits other drivers from leaving to start a qualifying run (supposedly) will incur a penalty, for instance, disallowing that driver’s qualifying time(s) or barring him/her from future rounds.

NASCAR also specified that beginning at TMS vehicles not making an immediate attempt to qualify would be staged in a designated track-specific area. Once a vehicle leaves that area it is immediately required to move onto the track and cannot wait on pit road to roll out.

NASCAR is aiming to prevent a repeat of what happened in Fontana, where none of the 12 teams in the final round made it to start a lap before the five-minute clock expired.

Tell all that to Clint Bowyer, who failed to advance into the top-24 for Round 2 at TMS after being trapped behind Ryan Newman’s car in the pit road parking lot. Bowyer, driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Ford Mustang fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing, obviously was looking for an explanation.

“I guess this is a make-up-the-rules-as-we-go event in qualifying.  It’s sad,” a clearly ticked-off Bowyer said. “Those people up there (fans) paid a lot of money to bring their families here to watch a qualifying session where people try to go out and do their best and you’re just sitting around waiting because you know your best is only good enough if the guy in front of you does a good job. That’s not qualifying.  Whatever.”

Bowyer said the sanctioning body had failed to learn from its mistakes. “We already had this failure and here we are doing it again. Come on,” said Bowyer, who will start Sunday’s race 25th in a 39-car field. “You’ve got to figure something else out.  When it doesn’t work you just can’t keep trying it. We’re lucky that these keep happening.  Wait until a wreck happens on pit road. We all know it’s coming.

“You can’t go too fast because you’ll be caught speeding, but you can’t go too slow because it’s discretionary.  Well, what the hell speed am I supposed to go?  Just tell me when to go and maybe I’ll just do that.”

Kevin Harvick, who is Bowyer’s SHR teammate, was more succinct. “You just can’t qualify these cars this way,” said Harvick, who will start 23rd in the No. 4 Mobil 1 Mustang. “I love group qualifying, but I just laughed all the way out to the racetrack.”

Asked if there was a fair way to run group qualifying with NASCAR’s new reduced horsepower/increased downforce package, Harvick said, “I don’t know.  You’ll have to ask somebody that’s much smarter than me, obviously, because we’re not smart enough to make the rules. I thought the rules didn’t get enforced again for all those cars stopping in the middle, but I’m not 100 percent clear on the rules.”

Conversely, reigning Cup Series champion Joey Logano said the session went as he expected.  “I don’t think there was anything surprising,” said Logano, who will start eighth in the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford fielded by Penske Racing.  “My question was…is everyone gonna wait to try to get one lap in or is everyone gonna go to get two? 

“I think it’s pretty entertaining. From my seat there’s a lot going on and you’re trying to position yourself in the best spot.  Every situation is different.  We’re all learning as a driver.  I made a mistake getting where I was in line to make sure I got to the second spot.  I got fed the right information, I just didn’t execute correctly, so we’re all still learning the process on how to put up the fastest lap because there is a lot in the car to go fast and the No. 48 showed that all day. It’s probably 50/50 right now.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who advanced into Round 2 but wound up 17th on the final grid, said he felt he had timed his out-lap correctly. “But by the time I got to the end of pit road everybody was four-wide, so I couldn’t get a lane to go and get two laps in,” said Stenhouse, driver of the No. 17 Fastenal Ford fielded by Roush Fenway Racing. “And then the No. 10 (of Aric Almirola) was slow in (Turns) 3 and 4, so I don’t know if we made the line to make our second lap anyway.  That’s just part of it.”

Stenhouse’s solution? “Yeah, single-car,” he said.”That’s about the only solution because at this point we all want to draft, so I mean Daniel Suarez (who qualified fourth) showed you could do it without drafting. They had a really fast car and I was surprised nobody went with him when he went, but once we’re into that time crunch we all get really close and some guys get good laps and some guys don’t. “

NASCAR’s announcement confirmed that returning to single-car time trials was not an option. “One of the things we wanted to hold true to is not to go back to single-car qualifying,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition said in a statement to NASCAR.com. “We definitely have to provide our fans with something that’s intriguing to watch and gets them excited about coming back and watching the race.

“Qualifying is an important element of the race weekend, and NASCAR has worked closely with the teams to implement a procedure that is both fair from a competition perspective and entertaining for our fans. We expect the updated procedure to result in a better outcome for drivers, fans and our track and broadcast partners.”

In conjunction with an extensive juggling of the Cup schedule also announced this week, therein lies another element in the sport’s ongoing effort to balance entertainment and competition.

“It seems like there has been a shift in entertainment-style racing or qualifying or whatever in the last year or so,” said Denny Hamlin, who will start sixth in the No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing. “I also believe everyone’s trying to do the right thing. I certainly believe the NASCAR executives that we have now in place, there’s more confidence in them than what there’s ever been since I’ve been here. All the way from the top of Jim (France) to Steve Phelps and Steve O’Donnell, the whole group I think is doing a really good job.

“It’s not always about what we want, but certainly I think keeping the integrity and making sure the right cars are winning poles and the right cars are winning races certainly should be at the forefront. But they also have to put on a product that’s exciting for the fans to see on TV, so it’s a balance. I don’t know the right balance to that. I think certainly from a competitor’s standpoint we want it to be where if we’re better than the person in front of us, we should be able to pass them.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 31 2019
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