AVONDALE, Ariz. – A few drivers, like Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, raced onto the track to make their qualifying sessions. Others waited, some nearly 10 minutes before heading out for the first time.
There were long stretches with almost no activity followed by mad scrambles to practice before time ran out. Car raced past each other at close to a 100 mph difference.
No doubt, this first round of NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying was a little strange and will take some adjusting.
Brad Keselowski earned the first Sprint Cup pole under NASCAR’s new format, edging Joey Logano with a track-record top speed of 139.384 mph at Phoenix International Raceway on Friday.
“It’s a lot more nerve-racking,” Keselowski said. “Usually a pretty good rule of thumb is that If it’s more nerve-racking for the drivers, it’s a lot more fun for our fans and partners and all those things, and that’s a good thing. I more interested in feedback from our fans to see if they liked it.”
Keselowski was one of the first drivers to go out in the first session and finished behind Logano. He trumped his teammate in the shorter, second session to earn his fourth career pole and a spot on the front row for Sunday’s 312-mile race.
Jamie McMurray qualified third, defending Sprint Cup champion was fourth and Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start fifth next to Greg Biffle.
“The qualifying format was before because I felt like I was one of those guys it was exciting for me because I wasn’t in, I made another run, I got in,” McMurray said. “The excitement was there.”
NASCAR made numerous changes for this season, including a tweaked qualifying process in an effort to liven up what had become a monotonous part of race weekend.
Instead of going out one at a time, the entire field gets a 30-minute session to post their fastest lap, with the top 12 moving on to a 10-minute second round. On bigger tracks, the qualifying will have three sessions, with the field cut to 24 then 12.
NASCAR took a glimpse of the new system at Daytona last week, but it didn’t last long; the Nationwide series was able to sneak in one round before rain washed out the rest of the qualifying and for the Truck Series.
The Daytona 500 didn’t use the new qualifying process, so Phoenix was the inaugural go-round.
No one knew quite what to expect and there was a bit of concern about drivers intentionally blocking each other to prevent fast lap times, something NASCAR officials planned to keep an eye on.
Instead, the action on the track was sparse for long stretches, with some drivers racing out to complete qualifying laps right away while several others waited several minutes to finish their first lap.
One issue while there were multiple cars on the track were the speeds.
NASCAR decided against allowing teams to have cool down units in their pit stalls, so most of the drivers in the field put in one fast lap and one that was much slower to cool their engines, creating differences of up to 100 mph between the cars.
“We’ve got a really good dialogue with all of our competitors,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president for competition and racing development. “They don’t want to force us to do something that’s wrong. They weigh in because they think things can be better.
“It’s our job to take and balance all that out and remove the agenda part of that a team may or may not have. Right now, it’s working pretty good.”
For the first session, Logano and Keselowski were at the front of the pack along pit road – by random drawing – and raced to be in front on the track so they’d have a clear path.
Logano put up the fastest time early and Keselowski was right behind him in second.
Despite teams coming in for adjustments – one crewmember was allowed to come over the wall to make minor changes – those two stayed out front for the entire first session.
For the final session, Keselowski put up his fast time relatively early in the 10-minute window and swapped places with Logano for the pole.
“Unfortunately, we won the wrong one,” Logano said. “We won the first one and our teammate got the second one, but either way we both had a chance to win something. He just got the trophy to take the pictures with.”