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.