How NASCAR's Changes to Qualifying Will Affect Team Strategies

Bob MargolisContributor IIFebruary 27, 2014

TALLADEGA, AL - MAY 06:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, looks on from the pit box of Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, after his was taken out of the race by an incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 6, 2012 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

“You will probably see some tempers flare because you will see some blocking at the end to make sure either they advance to the next group or get the pole,” said A. J. Allmendinger, driver of the JTG Daugherty Chevrolet.

“I think as a driver for qualifying [you will be thinking that] you don’t get that perfect lap the first round, but it’s just good enough to get into the next group. [Then] you really have a shot at the pole."

NASCAR is about to make history on Friday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR).

That is when the first session of NASCAR’s new “knockout qualifying” for the Sprint Cup series will take place.

The change to the qualifying procedure was announced several weeks ago. It was designed to create a more entertaining show for race fans both at the track and at home, watching on television. 

Up until now, qualifying for a Sprint Cup race was, quite frankly, a boring process. One car at a time would take a warm-up lap and then one or two timed laps. NASCAR officials then took the quickest of the two laps (often the first one) and used it to determine where the car would start in the field of 43.

This procedure has been in place since NASCAR was founded more than 60 years ago and—did I already say that at most tracks, no, make that all tracks—it was as exciting as watching paint dry.

Often the quickest car in qualifying, which is awarded the pole position, didn’t fare too well in the race, making qualifying a poor gauge with which to measure the competition. Perhaps the most valuable reward for winning the pole, besides a check, was the ability to be the first team to choose a pit stall on pit road, which can be a critical component of the race weekend.

So, to liven up the process, NASCAR has turned to a system similar to one that has been used successfully since 2008 in Formula One. Race officials in that series tried for years, using different procedures, to make qualifying competitive and entertaining. Now, if you watch the qualifying show for a F1 event, you will understand why NASCAR has turned to a similar process to determine the starting order for its races. It is entertaining and sets the stage for drivers to push their cars to the limit in the final session. It is truly an electrifying show.

And even though NASCAR’s qualifying sessions have been modified to work within its rules, by design they should produce a similarly exciting show for the fans.

Here’s how it works at tracks like PIR that are less than 1.25 miles in length:

Qualifying is made up of two rounds. The first round lasts 30 minutes and all cars are included. The 12 cars that post a fastest single lap time during this first round will advance to the second round. 

The second round is 10 minutes long and again, the fastest single lap time will determine positions one through 12 in descending order. The remaining cars will be grid based upon their times posted during the first round of qualifying, in descending order.

It all sounds simple enough, but it’s really quite complicated as crew chiefs and drivers have to think about tire wear (teams are limited to a specific number of tires), what other teams are doing and how a number of other questions will effect their own strategy for qualifying.

Does a crew chief send his driver out early or late? If he goes out late, does he get caught in traffic and is it just for one lap? How much is the weather changing track conditions? How much difference does the time of day make?

Kurt Busch
Kurt BuschPhelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

“Tire management will be key. A set of sticker (new) tires versus scuffs (used) can be three-tenths (of a second),” said veteran driver Kurt Busch, who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing. “I think you’re going to see large discrepancies at the big tracks and then smaller intervals of time at the short tracks, stickers versus scuffs.”

Then, there’s traffic to consider. During the first qualifying round, all cars will be qualifying, making it similar to race conditions. Expect to see some of the bigger names wait until very near the end of this first session to make their qualifying run, taking advantage of optimal track conditions.

The crew chief has a lot more to do with a good qualifying effort in 2014 than ever before.

“It will be a lot more entertaining and more of a must-see event versus watching an hour to 90 minutes of one car on the track at a time,” said Ryan Newman, who drives for Richard Childress Racing. “For us, as competitors, it is good to know that we are going to get multiple opportunities to bust off a good lap. You still have to bust off your best lap at the right time to win the pole, but the strategy that goes into it is the game."

It's going to be interesting to watch and it will be interesting to hear what the fans have to say.”

The fans. It really does come down to the fans. It always does in NASCAR. This new format is designed with them and social media in mind.

“I think it’s going to be exciting for everyone, not just the fans,” said Brian Pattie, crew chief for driver Clint Bowyer. "Knock out qualifying was enjoyable to watch in other series and I don’t think it will be any different for us.”

What are your thoughts about the new qualifying format?


* All quotes are from official team pre-race media releases. 

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