NASCAR to mull qualifying changes at plate races
Dale Earnhardt Jr. prepares to get in his car during a NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Thursday, July 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. addresses fans in the Fan Zone after he was named the most popular driver before the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, July 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, talks with Miss Sprint Cup, Madision Martin, during an interview after he was named NASCAR's most popular driver prior to the Sprint cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, July 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – That strange qualifying session at Daytona International Speedway might end up being a one-time thing.
NASCAR executive Robin Pemberton said rules could be tweaked to prevent teams from trying to scheme ways to post the fastest laps during the three knockout stages.
“I think we’ll learn from all of this moving forward and continue to talk and see if there’s anything that we need to look at to try to make things better for the fans and better for the competitors,” said Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition. “All in all, it’s been a great year for qualifying and it’s been a great year for a lot of different rule changes that we put into play this year.
“We’ll sit down and we’ll talk about some of these things toward the latter stages of the year and see what we may rub on and do a little changing or some things like that.”
NASCAR’s new qualifying rules package was used for the first time at Daytona in the Sprint Cup Series on Friday, and it produced some head-scratching moments as groups of cars slowed to a crawl around the 2½-mile superspeedway. The small packs – most of them formed by teammates – were hoping to pull behind bigger groups and draft behind them to produce fast laps. But no one was eager to lead the way, especially not in a huge cluster of cars.
Driver reaction was mostly negative, with pole-sitter David Gilliland dubbing it “uncontrolled chaos” and defending Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. calling it “a mess” and “the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
It was relatively risky, too. Several cars turned down pit road to elude the disorder. But the most common concern was the speed differences, with some drafting partners creeping along while others ran full speed.
“It was really wild and it was pretty dangerous,” driver Matt Kenseth said. “There’s cars doing 80 (mph) and there were cars doing 200 and nobody wanted to go. Everybody wanted to be in the back of the pack and try to catch the front to get a (fast) lap, so it was pretty chaotic.”
Similar strategies were used at NASCAR’s other restrictor-plate track, Talladega, in May. But not all teams were up to speed with those ploys back then. Everyone was ready Friday.
NASCAR could conceivably change the qualifying rules before the Oct. 19 Chase race at Talladega.
Earnhardt suggested NASCAR might shorten the segments, leaving teams with less time to play cat-and-mouse games, or switch to heat races.
“I don’t know if you just ball it up and throw it in the trash yet, but heat races are always fun,” Earnhardt said. “You can never go wrong with heat races. We got away from them for some reason, but that’s what they used to run in the ’50s and ’60s. … I’m not sure they are the be-all, end-all answer for everything.”
Pemberton said heat races were considered when NASCAR overhauled its qualifying format in January, but ultimately not chosen because of their unpredictability.
“We didn’t look at them as a bad idea,” Pemberton said. “It just put teams in a position where they may not be able to compete based on accidents. We weigh those things. Heat races are exciting, but when you’re qualifying two hours or so before an event, you’re putting yourself in a position where others may not be able to compete at a high level.
“I’m not saying that anything is ever off the table, though. We have this stack of ideas and paperwork that we keep going to and are constantly reviewing.”