Following a Fontana fiasco where none of the fastest cars completed a single timed qualifying lap in the final Top-12 session, NASCAR said we should expect changes to its procedures for Texas Motor Speedway.
Texas is this coming weekend, and what those changes could be has yet to be announced. But opinions vary widely on how a seemingly simple qualifying procedure should be revised.
“We don’t really have a procedure problem or a race car problem; we have a race track problem,” said Front Row Motorsports’ David Ragan. “Nobody talks about qualifying at Martinsville or Dover, on short tracks or Darlington, but we talk about it at these mile-and-a-half tracks. So that’s the problem – but we can’t just snap our fingers and get rid of mile-and-a-half tracks.”
Currently, Cup Series qualifying at most facilities goes three rounds. Drivers have a number of chances to advance themselves limited only by the time of the individual sessions.
After the first round of 10 minutes, 24 drivers move on. Another 10 minutes cuts it down to 12. Those 12 then get five minutes to duke it out for the pole.
Qualifying at the big two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval in Fontana, however, proved it’s not that simple. Given the new rules package where momentum and drafting are key, no driver wanted to be the first one on track, whether out there by himself, or forced to lead the pack. First out is a disadvantage, as those trailing behind are going to get the draft. That makes them quicker, which of course means a faster lap time.
In Fontana, the top 12 drivers all decided to sit and wait. And wait. By the time they all peeled off pit road, it was too late and no amount of shuffling around to try and be in the right place mattered.
“I think group qualifying is good for TV,” said Landon Cassill. “It makes an entertaining show seeing cars out [together] and make runs. But I’m a fan of single-car qualifying because it’s a very pure motorsport driver/team/car-performance thing. I think there’s no clear solution.”
Cassill said it wouldn’t hurt his feelings if NASCAR rethought the entire qualifying process, not just what was good for the larger tracks. He was one of several drivers who put forth ideas when asked how they would like to see qualifying handled going forward.
An official announcement on any qualifying changes could come early in the week.
Jimmie Johnson said Texas might not be like Fontana because the tight radius of Turns 1 and 2 should force drivers to lift off the throttle. Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports’ seven-time champion, said drivers told NASCAR last year it was going to be a work in progress. He urged everyone to have patience as the entire garage, including NASCAR, is learning, and believes it will get ironed out.
But Johnson did concede: “Michigan, without a doubt, should be single-car qualifying.”
Some of the other wide-ranging solutions offered included:
Brad Keselowski: “I would just pull off the restrictor plates and let them go run for it, and then we wouldn’t have any of this. I’d empty out the grandstands and make everybody go on the infield at all the tracks, and we’d put on a hell of a show. That’s what I would do. Then you wouldn’t see any of this drafting nonsense and you’d see cars going 215, 220 miles an hour — just for one lap but I think it’d be awesome. That’d get rid of all the shenanigans and we’d go back to setting track records and doing all kinds of crazy awesome stuff. At least for one lap.”
Martin Truex Jr.: “Take the Lexan off the spoiler so then we can’t draft. Put it back on for practice. That’ll keep teams from having to rebuild the car after qualifying on Friday night for Saturday. [Have] race trim and then, for qualifying, you just take the Lexan off and we won’t – I promise you – we won’t want to draft.”
Kyle Busch: “I don’t know. I just follow the rules, whatever the rules are. I told [radio] last week, hey, you guys are all talking about it, you’re conversing about it, there’s a buzz around it and people may not like it, whatever, but we’re talking about it rather than there just being single-car qualifying and nobody saying a damn word about it. Pick and choose your battles wisely, folks.”
Ty Dillon (who also said he hates all the negative attention surrounding qualifying): “If in any round of qualifying cars don’t make it out, then those cars start in the back and lose their pit selection. Make it a penalty we’re losing something over so people actually have to go out there and run. I don’t think the pack is bad. I don’t think anything about that is bad. I think it’s fun. It’s not the single-car qualifying [we’re used to], but it’s still qualifying for a NASCAR race. We all have the obligation to go out there and figure out this style. It’s more exciting. Who doesn’t want to see more cars go closer together in a high-impact situation? Now, the sitting on pit road when no cars make a lap is no good. So, make it a penalty.”
David Ragan: “Heat races on Friday. I would do just a fuel run so you don’t have to worry about pit crews and divide the field into two. You have 20 [cars] in this heat, 20 in that heat, have a 30-minute break (in-between) to clean things up.”
Aric Almirola: “I’ve always been in favor of the fastest car getting the pole. That’s the way it’s been since I was a little kid. I was eight years old and started racing go-karts and locally we would run heat races; but when I went to state races and national races, we qualified, and the fastest kids with the fastest go-karts qualified up front. That’s all I’ve ever known. This year, with the qualifying rules the way they are, the fastest car doesn’t necessarily always get the pole. It’s the guy that times it right at the line and gets the best draft. And it really has less to do with the fastest race car and more [to do with] the situation. So from that aspect, I would hope that whatever rules come down the pipe incentivize again kind of what our roots are and where having the fastest race car means something in qualifying.”
No hints from NASCAR about what the tweaks might be, but senior vice president of competition Scott Miller suggested that reverting to single-car qualifying was not something officials wanted to do.
Cup Series qualifying in Texas will take place Friday evening.