Welp, so much for that idea!

The instant all 12 cars failed to take the green flag of Friday’s final qualifying round at Fontana was the same moment this qualifying format died.

Austin Dillon won perhaps the most unique pole in NASCAR history by posting a speed of 0.00 mph in the final round of qualifying, beating everyone else based on his Round 2 time because not a single driver made an official lap in the completed session.

Just 39 days ago, NASCAR’s Scott Miller said the sanctioning body would retain group qualifying for this season — despite the probability of cars drafting at intermediate tracks.

That went against what NASCAR does with the Truck Series, where single-car qualifying is required on tracks where the drivers can draft. But when it came to the Cup Series, Miller had said, “We’re in show business.”

It was a fun and optimistic thought that lasted until Friday — when the show turned into a “mockery,” as Miller put it. Suddenly, that was the end of the current qualifying procedures.

“We hoped things would go better than that,” Miller said. “Obviously, we have a little work to do on our part to get a better format so things like that can’t happen. We certainly want to provide our fans with what they deserve, and we — and the teams — didn’t do a very good job of that today. So we’re certainly disappointed.”

Unfortunately, there aren’t any other obvious solutions out there. Drivers had more shoulder shrugs than suggestions when asked what NASCAR should do now.

Whether it’s one big round of group qualifying or a hybrid solution (two group rounds plus a single-car round), there’s no way to avoid drafting when cars are allowed to qualify at the same time.

“I don’t know what else you can do, because the lead car is at such a disadvantage in qualifying,” Denny Hamlin said. “You don’t want to be first (in the draft) — and when you don’t want to be first, it will be a waiting game no matter what.”

But for the most part, the drivers seemed to recognize change was coming — particularly after they heard boos from the stands after their almost-laps.

“I’ve seen it in other sports, but I’ve never seen it in ours: We just got booed,” a visibly discouraged Clint Bowyer said. “It’s disappointing for everybody involved. I saw this coming three weeks ago; I think we all did.

“I know we’re capable as an industry of putting on a better show than that and I know they’ll make the right provisions to make that correct. Unfortunately, it’s going to take something like that to make that adjustment.”

The adjustment — in whatever form — will likely come by Texas in two weeks (drivers can’t draft at Martinsville next week). But the solution is yet to be determined.

“We’ve been working on a few other things, but we really don’t want to go to back to single-car qualifying,” Miller said. “There may not be another way. But we want to try to exhaust every possibility before we do that, because it’s just not as fun, not as intriguing of a show as the group situation.”

Jimmie Johnson acknowledged single-car qualifying isn’t as entertaining, but said “we’ll have to pick from the lesser of two evils in the end” — though which one is lesser option remains unclear.

Other opinions ranged from being fine with the current format (“I don’t see any problem with it; it’s drama, baby,” Kyle Busch said, perhaps sarcastically) to calling for a return to tradition (“I am still a big fan of single-car qualifying. That is the way qualifying should be,” Ryan Newman said).

Regardless of the solution, there was a sense of disappointment for the fans in attendance who made their opinions known.

“I looked up there in the stands after we got out of our cars and I felt bad for those people, because they paid money to come watch us qualify,” Aric Almirola said. “And they didn’t even get to see us post a lap in the final round.”

Said Kevin Harvick: “I think the crowd booing tells the story.”


Related: My now-ice-cold take from Las Vegas in favor of this format

 

Dammmmmmn, Daniel! Suarez, McDowell fight during Phoenix qualifying

Just when you thought this NASCAR season was off to a tame start, Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell spent part of their afternoon fighting on pit road.

On a Friday! During qualifying!

Have you ever seen a fight during qualifying before?

“I did today!” Martin Truex Jr. said. “Awesome!”

Drivers stopped in their tracks and stared at the screens around ISM Raceway while the replay was shown again and again: The images of Suarez walking with purpose and stepping over the pit road wall, McDowell issuing the first strike, Suarez getting the upper hand and slamming McDowell to the ground, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer shoving Suarez onto the hood — hand on the driver’s neck — and Suarez giving him a choke right back as McDowell pulled on his foe’s leg.

 

“At some point I’ve always wanted to bodyslam somebody,” Kevin Harvick said. “I don’t know what the circumstances were, but it sounded exciting.”

So what happened? Well, it all started with the No. 90 Xfinity Series car driven by Ronnie Bassett Jr.

Bassett’s engine blew at the end of Xfinity practice — which immediately preceded qualifying — and the clean-up job left all sorts of residue on the track.

“One of the ARCA cars blew up at the end of practice and oiled it all down, so nobody wanted to get on the track too soon,” Brad Keselowski said.

That meant most of the cars waited until the very end to roll out — which in turn caused there to be far too much traffic at once on a 1-mile track and prevented some drivers from getting a clean lap.

“When you have a bunch of knucklehead drivers sit out there and wait with four minutes left and 30 cars still haven’t run, that’s what you have,” David Ragan said.

McDowell and Suarez rolled off at the same time, and Suarez strongly felt McDowell impeded his laps — not just once, but twice. So on their way back to pit road, Suarez got in McDowell’s way as retaliation. (McDowell accused Suarez of trying to wreck him, which Suarez didn’t deny.)

“When you mess up somebody’s lap, I understand they’re frustrated,” McDowell said. “But when you try to hurt somebody and damage hundreds of thousands of dollars of race cars, that’s taking it to a whole other level.”

Suarez said he was mad about McDowell costing him a good starting spot, but even more upset about losing pit stall selection on a difficult pit road (stalls are chosen in order of how cars qualified).

He called the situation a lack of respect and said he wouldn’t stand for it.

“I’m the kind of driver that I’m going to give a lot of respect to you, always, if you give me respect back,” Suarez said. “If you don’t give me respect, I’m going to go kick your ass.”

Asked about his takedown of a taller driver (McDowell is listed as having five inches on Suarez), the ultra-athletic Suarez said, “I don’t care how big he is.”

He added: “I’m a very nice guy. I get along well with anyone. But if you play that way, I’m going to react that way.”

McDowell, for his part, said the entire thing was a one-off confrontation in the heat of the moment and had nothing to do with history or bad blood between them.

Both men were upset with the other, and they simply dealt with it.

“Don’t read too much into it,” McDowell said. “It’s emotions, man. It’s just the way it is.”


UPDATE (Saturday morning): McDowell and Suarez met with NASCAR in the series hauler on Saturday morning before practice, where they reassured officials they won’t set out to wreck each other in Sunday’s race.

Suarez said it was easy for him to make that pledge because it’s not his style to crash other drivers.

“I’m not the kind of guy who is going to wreck someone like that,” Suarez said. “I’m not going to use my car as a weapon. If someone has a problem with me, I prefer to do it in person. That’s exactly what I did (Friday).”

But McDowell’s entire reason for being upset was the “dangerous” move Suarez made to interfere with the No. 34 car’s lap as retaliation. McDowell said he expected Suarez to mess up the lap — it’s “protocol” to do so if the other driver does it first, McDowell said — but “what he did was pretty risky for both of us.”

A video shown on FS1 Saturday morning had McDowell’s car coming at full speed while Suarez makes a move back up the track at slow speed, which caused McDowell to jump on the brakes and go high, nearly hitting the wall.

McDowell said the drivers also spoke privately in the NASCAR hauler following their meeting with officials.

I just wanted to have a real conversation with him without all the people around to understand where we’re coming from,” McDowell said. “You’re in this sport a long time and you’re surrounded by people, and you have the opportunity to have good and bad relationships. You can determine that by how you handle conflict. So I just wanted to see where he was at.”

New aero package qualifying a wacky circus, but it was entertaining

There’s no cheering allowed in the press box, but I sure hope laughing is permitted.

That’s because I spent a decent part of Friday’s qualifying session at Las Vegas — the first with the new aero rules package — cracking up. Watching the bizarre, wacky game of chicken was honestly hilarious, and I enjoyed the spectacle of the strange scene.

Now, was that the fairest way to determine the polesitter for a major league, professional race? LORD no! Does it reward the fastest car or the best driver? C’mon. Of course not. This was more of a circus than a competition.

But damn if it wasn’t entertaining in its uniquely weird way. And really, isn’t that going to be the theme of 2019 NASCAR? “Entertaining in a uniquely weird way?”

Think about it: We’re two days away from seeing a bunch of restricted-power cars with the equivalent of aerodynamic parachutes run around a track that was originally built for high-speed, balls-to-the-walls racing. Everything is different now, and this is just another sign.

I’m sure the drivers absolutely hated what happened on Friday, and I don’t blame them. If you grew up as the most elite driver in your region and ascended to the ranks of America’s top racing series, you’d probably want your talent and team’s hard work to shine through. You’d probably be disgusted at being treated like a trained monkey who gets in the car and holds it wide open while getting beat by a driver who wasn’t better than you but just got great timing with a draft.

But the world they live in — the NASCAR universe we all share as people who follow the sport — has changed in 2019. Those in charge have opted for entertainment and show business over the purity of racing, a huge gamble to try and stop the sport’s decline.

At the same time, I’m finding myself caring less about the holiness of some aspects of the weekend. That includes qualifying, because…does it really even matter?

Last year, some cars would fail to make a qualifying attempt due to inspection issues — and then drive up to the front before the end of Stage 1 like it was nothing. So why is qualifying even necessary? Who cares where drivers start?They could just do a random draw (like before the Clash) and start that way.

Yes, this qualifying session was fairly stupid, but it was also entertaining. Will I still feel that way a month or five months from now, after this has happened multiple times? Eh, maybe not. But NASCAR will probably have revamped the format by then anyway.

Maybe I’m just resigned to constant change at this point, but qualifying didn’t make me outraged or mad. I’m not jumping up and down screaming out principle and credibility. They qualified, got a starting lineup out of it and it was funny at the same time.

What’s so bad about that?

“I’ll leave that up to you guys on how to wrap your arms around it,” Kevin Harvick said after winning the pole.

Personally, I’m OK with embracing it. But I certainly understand if others don’t.

Widespread inspection failures not NASCAR’s fault

If you’re mad at NASCAR officials for 13 cars failing to make a lap in qualifying Friday at Auto Club Speedway, you’re angry at the wrong people.

Getting upset is understandable; everyone wants to see all cars on the track. But blame the race teams, not those trying to keep them within the rules.

NASCAR has vastly improved its technology this year with the new Optical Scanning Station, an inspection system which drivers and crew chiefs alike agree has been much more consistent and reliable than anything NASCAR had in the past.

If a team fails inspection now, there’s little mystery why it happened: Because that team was trying to push the limits as much as possible and went over the line.

NASCAR gives three hours for teams to get through pre-qualifying inspection. Three hours! But when only 12 of the 37 cars pass on the first try, which was the case on Friday, not everyone is going to have time to make it through three times.

All the teams who didn’t get to make a lap? They all had enough time to make at least two passes through inspection. And they failed.

How is that NASCAR’s fault? The answer: It’s not.

Most of the teams now have Optical Scanning Stations in their race shops! They know exactly what can pass and what doesn’t.

NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller said teams were failing the body scan for a variety of reasons on Friday, but he saw many not passing because of the rear window area.

Hmm. Have you heard anything about that area recently? Ah, right.

Look, Auto Club Speedway is the most aero-dependent track NASCAR has visited so far. So it’s no wonder teams are trying to squeeze all they can out of the rules.

Miller said the number of cars that passed on the first inspection attempt last week was in the mid-20s and had been climbing higher in the last couple races. Clearly, the teams know how to pass the body scan if when they want to.

But they showed up at Fontana trying to get some more speed, and it made a mockery out of qualifying.

“(It) absolutely, 100 percent frustrates me,” Miller said. “We’re in the business of putting on a show for everybody who watches our sport and this is not a great story. So it’s frustrating for me that we can’t seem to get over this hump.”

Chase Elliott fails to make qualifying attempt at Texas

Chase Elliott’s car went through NASCAR’s laser inspection platform for a third time with just minutes remaining in the first round of qualifying. He was so sure his car had passed, Elliott immediately put on his HANS device and helmet and prepared to get in the car.

But as his team started backing up the car toward the garage instead of pushing it toward pit road, Elliott realized he wasn’t going to get to qualify on Friday. He slowly unbuckled his helmet and followed the car toward his team’s garage stall.

Elliott, 26 points below the cutoff line with two races to go, will now start 34th Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

“As you all know, I think qualifying well is important for stage points, so I think it puts even more emphasis for us on having to go compete for a win,” Elliott told a small group of reporters afterward. “It keeps it simple. Jimmie (Johnson) did it in the spring (after starting from the back), and if we get our car driving good (Saturday) afternoon, it’s definitely doable.”

Elliott was puzzled as to why teams seem to struggle with inspection at Texas. His No. 24 was one of seven cars that did not make a lap — Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano were other notables — and Elliott also had to start from the back in the spring race.

The 24 team, knowing how important qualifying was, apparently took a big swing at fixing the area in question after its first failed inspection attempt. Team members, including crew chief Alan Gustafson, appeared surprised and frustrated when it did not pass on the second attempt.

“You’re kidding me,” Gustafson said.

And when the car came through a third time, the team seemed absolutely certain it would get Elliott on the track with a minute or so remaining in qualifying.

Instead, the car didn’t pass yet again.

“We got caught ‘cheating’ when we were trying to pass,” Elliott said. “I don’t know why that was. We were fixing our area of failure in a way larger area than what we failed by. I don’t know why we couldn’t get the (laser) to produce the green light.”

The Top Five: Breaking down the Pocono race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…

1. Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch?

Kyle Busch haters can skip over this part, but the guy is a serious championship contender despite not having won in more than a year until Sunday.

For most of the season, the best car each week has been either Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Larson. But Busch has been creeping into the picture lately, and he’s been the one to battle Truex the last couple weeks while Larson hasn’t shown as much speed (even before incidents which resulted in finishes of 28th and 33rd).

Busch hadn’t won since the 2016 Brickyard 400 and Joe Gibbs Racing hadn’t won all season until two weeks ago, so everyone has been busy talking more about that than how the 2015 Cup champ might have a pretty good shot to do it again.

Busch has the most poles, second-most laps led and third-most top-five finishes this season. And perhaps most important, he is now tied for the third-most playoff points with Larson and Brad Keselowski.

As JGR continues to gain speed, Busch has been out front the most. He’s led at least 74 laps in four straight races now. That’s a very dangerous car for his rivals to deal with.

“… We’ve had speed, we’ve been right there, we’ve been able to do what we should be doing: That’s running up front,” Busch said. “It’s just been a bit frustrating on the finishing side.”

It’s scary, because with all the near-misses until Sunday, you get the feeling the No. 18 team hasn’t even performed to its potential yet. If Busch and his team start converting all the close calls into wins? Watch out.

2. What’s the point?

Speaking of championship contenders, I was puzzled by the No. 78 team’s decision to pit late in Stage 2 and give up what seemed like a sure playoff point — which would have made 30 on the season.

I get that Truex and Cole Pearn were going for the win, which meant sacrificing a stage win. Had it worked, they would have made a trade for four additional points than a stage victory brings.

But that’s only if it works. It didn’t. So instead of one playoff point, the team left with zero.

“That was the gamble,” Truex said. “That was our mindset before the race. We figured if we felt like we were good enough to possibly win the race, we’d have to pit before the end of that second stage. Just stuck to our plan.

“It didn’t work out, so obviously now I wish we would have stayed out and won that stage. That’s part of it.”

I can’t recall every situation that led to 14 stage wins for Truex this season, but it seems like the team had been going all-out for playoff points every week until Pocono. And as has been discussed frequently, those points are going to be a massive factor this fall in deciding who makes it to Homestead. So why not take as many as possible when the opportunity presents itself?

Truex and Pearn had an easy one point, gambled for four more and ended up with none. That’s what a team in a trailing position should do, not the leader.

This was like a basketball player passing on a wide-open layup with a 20-point lead; there’s no need to take a contested three in that situation.

3. A different level of speed

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pumped after finishing 12th, pleased he and the No. 88 team “finally put one together” and had a “complete race” despite an early speeding penalty. Earnhardt ran in the top 10 for much of the second half of the day — something he didn’t anticipate after fighting a loose condition on corner entry all weekend.

But even on a good day, he wasn’t really close to running with the top cars.

“Man, I don’t know where the speed is that the front three or four have,” he said on pit road after the race. “They’ve got it every week. We don’t have that, and we’re not going to find in that garage on Friday or Saturday. If we don’t show up with it, we’re not going to find it. That’s somewhere in the shop.”

Earnhardt said it was probably only a matter of time before Busch started matching Truex’s speed, given the information-sharing arrangement between alliance partners JGR and Furniture Row Racing.

But he’s not sure where the speed is coming from, and that’s concerning.

“It’s nothing you can visually see,” he said .”We’re all in the garage together. We can see under their cars, see the springs they’re running, stuff like that. But it’s not in anything like that.

“They’ve got a lot of speed somehow. They’ve got a lot more speed than everybody else. Gotta give ’em credit.”

4. Season slipping away for Logano

Joey Logano’s season of misery just keeps snowballing as the playoffs approach all too quickly for his team’s liking.

Sunday was another race where everything seemed to go wrong.

Not only did the team lack the speed it needed to be competitive, but both Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon made mistakes on pit road.

Logano was caught speeding with 36 laps to go and had to serve a pass-through penalty under green, but then locked up his tires coming to pit road. When Logano told the team he hurt his tires enough to possibly incur a flat, Gordon quickly made the call to pit for four tires.

But that was a no-no, because pitting while serving a penalty requires another pass-through down pit road. By the time it was all over, Logano finished 27th and one lap down.

The result was Logano’s eighth finish outside the top 20 in the 12 races since he won at Richmond but had the win ruled to be encumbered. He’s now 69 points behind the cutoff with just five races until the playoffs begin.

I caught up with Logano as he was walking glumly away from his car on pit road and asked whether he’s ever faced such a stretch of adversity in his career.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

But Logano said his team “still knows how to do it” and added “we’ve just got to built some momentum back up.”

The thing is, momentum might not be necessary. It just takes one great race (or one good race where everything falls into place) to make the playoffs, and Logano is certainly capable of doing that.

There’s not much time left, though.

5. Sunday doubleheader (kind of)

Qualifying on the same day as the race was kind of weird, even though there were a lot of positives on paper.

The flow of race day seemed all messed up, and the laid-back atmosphere that qualifying brings took away from the typical Sunday morning vibe — where the anticipation builds in the hours before the event.

Maybe I’ll get used to it (a similar schedule will be tried again next week), and I hope that’s the case — because there definitely some good sides of it. Fans get added value with on-track activity before the race itself (some of whom never get to see a Friday session at the track because they don’t come for the whole weekend) and drivers/teams get an extra day at home (after all, the Cup Series really doesn’t need to be at some of these tracks for three days).

 

I just wish the schedule could be tightened up a bit. After qualifying, there was roughly a 45-minute gap until the drivers meeting, then a 90-minute gap until the green flag.

Lunchtime quietly rolled by without much fanfare, and the sun started to shift in the sky before the race finally went green at 3:21 p.m. ET.  People were just milling around waiting for it to start.

But come on — this is NASCAR! Big-time auto racing, right? It shouldn’t feel like waiting for the leaders to tee off at a golf tournament.

 


PLAYOFF PICTURE

By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble:

14. Chase Elliott +39

15. Jamie McMurray +38

16. Matt Kenseth +17

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -17

18. Joey Logano -69

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

The qualifying quandary at Atlanta

This afternoon’s qualifying session at Atlanta Motor Speedway has me quite intrigued, thanks to a few new rules that could make it more unpredictable than usual.

It might turn out to be a whole bunch of nothing, but then again…it could be chaotic.

Here are the two reasons why:

1. Inspection

Oh, this is delicious. As a stickler for rules, I love it when the teams push the limits and then blame NASCAR for why they failed inspection. That happened two years ago, when 13 cars couldn’t get through inspection in time for qualifying and never got to make a lap.

At the time, it looked bad for NASCAR; all the drivers pointed fingers at officials, who were like, “No, YOU!” But if you examine at the situation today, any problems are going to be the teams’ fault.

Since this is the first “real” race with the new aero package, teams are going to push the limits. And if they go too far, it’s going to potentially cause them to miss qualifying.

Starting this year, teams can’t just fail an inspection station, pull out of line for a quick fix and try again. Now they have to take the car back to the garage, make a fix and start the entire inspection process from the beginning. That’s going to cost them a lot of time — potentially enough to never get on track for a qualifying spot, especially if other cars are doing the same thing.

But — and here’s the big twist for today — missing qualifying might not be the worst thing in the world because…

2. Tire strategy

As you know, the tires wear out quickly at Atlanta. Combine that with the new rule which requires teams to start the race on the tires they used for qualifying, and there’s a big opportunity for strategy there.

Think about it: If a car makes it to the final round, it will likely have at least two more laps on the tires than a car that doesn’t get past round one. So it might be an advantage to sandbag in qualifying, then zoom past cars on older tires at the start of the race.

Add in a rule — revised this week after discussion with the teams — that allows a team which doesn’t make a qualifying lap to start the race on sticker tires, and you could see some cars at the rear do the whole Kyle-Busch-in-Xfinity thing and go from back to front in no time.

Anyway, those things might not take place — since just when you expect something to go down in NASCAR, the opposite usually happens. But if you see it, then consider this a heads up.