You know when you’re driving down the interstate in a pack of cars going about 75 mph and, all of a sudden, you come up on that little old lady who can’t see over the steering wheel, taking up two lanes in her car that’s double the size of yours and is going about 36 mph?
Everyone slams on their brakes or makes an evasive move to the shoulder, and for a brief second, you think about turning her sideways and launching her into the woods. Instead, you safely pass and angrily think to yourself, “She shouldn’t be on the road. That’s really dangerous.”
The new knockout qualifying in Sprint Cup is a lot like that — except there are more little old ladies than drivers pushing the speed limit, meaning the speed differential between the two parties is much greater. We all knew there would be kinks to the new qualifying system, and last Friday (Feb. 28) at Phoenix, we learned about the biggest one. In order to keep their engines and tires cool in preparation for another shot at posting a fast lap, drivers crawled around Phoenix slower than 2010 series Rookie of the Year Kevin Conway used to.
While Fox Sports 1 probably wasn’t crazy about focusing its cameras on cars doing 30 mph — they were easy to keep track of, at least — the major problem was the danger created by having cars at full speed mixed with more that, in comparison, seemed barely moving (sounds a lot like the Nationwide Series). It’s a recipe for disaster.
“When you’re going out there and you’re going 100 mph slower, the closing rate is really fast,” Joey Logano said on Friday. “It’s kind of scary.”
Formula 1, which NASCAR imitated in creating its new format, gets away with it in its qualifying sessions for a number of reasons. Their car count is almost exactly half of what we see in Sprint Cup. There are larger gaps between the cars, and because of how short their sessions are, teams don’t spend a lot of time lollygagging around the circuit — they pit. The circuit also races on large road courses with very thin racing lines, meaning it’s a little easier to get out of the way. Despite all of those factors, Formula 1 still features the occasional car on a tear that runs over one with a sleeping pilot.
Still, Formula 1 is doing things right when it comes to qualifying; in fact, its qualifying sessions are sometimes more thrilling than the actual races. NASCAR’s move to follow suit? The best move it had made since it didn’t let Brian France run the show. Single-car qualifying was a cakewalk for teams and a let-me-check-if-there’s-any-cake-in-the-fridge-because-I-don’t-want-to-sit-here-and-watch-this-crap for fans. It was outdated and needed to go. While I’m not necessarily in favor of knockout sessions in NASCAR’s playoffs, it adds something to qualifying. Kevin Harvick getting pushed out of the top 12 in the closing moments of the first round by Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was exciting, as was watching drivers take different strategies about when the right time was to post a fast lap in the final session.
But along with that excitement came confusion. Fox Sports 1, airing the qualifying for the first time, claimed it was live, but fans found out quickly through Twitter that it was tape-delayed. Maybe the station thought Justin Allgaier was going to curse somebody out for disturbing his air on his hot lap, but in all seriousness, that’s one issue we didn’t see Friday that we will see in the future. Drivers will be crying foul like European soccer players when they don’t like the tactics of others; it is the biggest drawback from Formula 1 qualifying. At least one driver marches to the race steward’s office to demand someone else be penalized for impeding their run on every qualifying day.
OK, let’s deal with the present problems first. The engine/tire cooling was the most dangerous part of Friday’s session, but there were other dangers as well. The cars were parked diagonally on pit road to face the inside pit wall, so when it was time to head out, drivers were forced to back up into the middle of an active pit road. It’s far from ideal. NASCAR needs to consider having cars park horizontally in pit boxes to prevent pit road incidents. It won’t look as cool with the cars spread out, but it’ll prevent Danica Patrick from backing into four of them.
The solution to the engine/tire cooling issue isn’t as clear. It’s been suggested that teams bring generators and fans to the pit box to cool the car in place on pit road, but NASCAR’s concern is that doing so allows crews to get close to the cars — possibly even under the hood — in a session where no changes are supposed to take place. Chad Knaus might “accidentally” make a change or two. As NASCAR Vice President of Operations Robin Pemberton put it Friday, “cooling units on pit road might cause the strategic element of the new format to suffer.”
Not finding a solution isn’t an option, though. If you thought things were getting a little hairy around Phoenix — a one-mile track — wait until the series heads to Bristol and Martinsville, which are both half-mile ovals. There is no room to hide at Martinsville. If the glitch we saw in Phoenix isn’t fixed by then, it’ll be a full-blown disaster.
NASCAR made a wise decision to change the qualifying format, but it must now quickly fix its kinks before they turn into something much bigger.