DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The qualifying session for NASCAR’s biggest race of the year was lambasted by Tony Stewart as “a complete embarrassment” and called a “cute show” by Clint Bowyer.
The frenetic knockout format ended with Jeff Gordon on the pole for the final Daytona 500 of his career.
And as NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell tried to answer to the wave of displeasure from the drivers after Sunday’s session, he was reminded by Gordon himself what a predicament the series is in regarding qualifying for “The Great American Race.”
“Great format, Steve!” Gordon shouted to O’Donnell from the back of a news conference room.
Indeed, Gordon had no qualms with qualifying after he and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson outsmarted the field Sunday to sweep the front row for the Daytona 500. They were among only a handful of drivers who were pleased with the format, and their opinion was most certainly based on the end result.
“This format is crazy and chaotic,” Gordon said. “It can be extremely rewarding when you have a day like we had.”
NASCAR abandoned single-car qualifying runs, the format used for 56 years at Daytona International Speedway, for the knockout group sessions it adopted last season. The format was not tried at the Daytona 500 last year, but was used at the speedway in July.
The group qualifying works fine at most racetracks, but has been proven tricky at Daytona and Talladega, where drivers must draft and the leader is not the fastest car. It’s led to strategies that have drivers sitting on pit road watching the clock, and jockeying for position when it’s time to go.
After a five-car accident in the first group of 25 drivers, Bowyer railed against using knockouts to set the Daytona 500 field. Reigning champion Kevin Harvick and Stewart both vented via Twitter, while Ryan Newman was among the many drivers critical of NASCAR.
“It’s hard to stand behind NASCAR when everybody I talk to up and down pit road doesn’t understand why we’re doing this,” Newman said. “Maybe I need to be sat down and educated a little bit.”
O’Donnell, who acknowledged the driver complaints, said NASCAR is trying to create a more entertaining format for fans than the snooze-inducing single-car runs.
“We don’t want to see wrecks of any kind. Not lost on us how much work goes into these cars by the teams, the efforts for our biggest race of the year,” he said. “We’ve got a really good track record of making adjustments where we need to, so we’ll certainly evaluate what took place.”
But the 12 drivers who made it into the final round weren’t really complaining, especially Gordon, who announced last month this will be his final full-time season as driver of the famed No. 24 Chevrolet.
He’s been adamant next Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 will be the last of his storied career. The four-time NASCAR champion is a three-time 500 winner, and he’ll lead the field to green in his 23rd and final start
“I can’t think of anything cooler than to start this season, the Daytona 500, my final Daytona 500, final full season, on the pole,” Gordon said. “It’s going to be pretty important for me to be on that pole when it all starts.”
Gordon was the first pole winner to eclipse 200 mph since 1987. His pole-winning speed was 201.293, but gained because he was being pushed by Johnson rather than running a lap around the speedway alone.
The group qualifying was messy from the start, when the first 25 drivers all jockeyed for position before they even left pit road. Some even drove through the grass to get through the traffic jam.
It stuck Bowyer behind Reed Sorenson, a driver who needed a big run Sunday to lock himself into the field.
So Sorenson tried to block Bowyer in a desperation attempt to advance through the knockout rounds and it triggered a five-car pileup.
Both Bowyer and Sorenson ended up with a pair of wrecked Toyotas. It was Sorenson’s only car of Speedweeks, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to locate another car before Thursday’s qualifying races.
“I didn’t mean to wreck anybody or anything like that,” Sorenson said. “Just a product of this qualifying, trying to get that one lap. I didn’t want it to end that way, that’s for sure.”
Bowyer, who angrily gestured inside Sorenson’s window after the wreck, was seething. He placed the blame squarely on NASCAR for scrapping single-car qualifying runs in favor of the more exciting knockout rounds.
“It’s NASCAR’s fault for putting us out in the middle of this for nothing,” Bowyer said. “We used to come down here and worry about who would sit on the front row in the biggest race of the year. Now all we do is come down here and worry about how a start-and-park like this out of desperation is going to knock us out of the Daytona 500.
“We’ve been in meetings for 45 minutes just trying to figure out what in the hell everybody is going to do just so we can make the race. It’s stupid.”
The knockout rounds whittled it down to one final 12-car session in which the drivers had five minutes to make a qualifying run.
Only all 12 idled on pit road, as none of them wanted to be first out on the track.
Finally, Martin Truex Jr. pulled onto the track and the others slowly followed. It was apparent as they raced to cross the starting line in the allotted time that they’d all been timing their move to make their lap just under the wire.
It worked to perfection for Gordon and Johnson, who gave Hendrick Motorsports a sweep of the front row for the fourth time in history.
“This is one of the more gratifying poles here at Daytona that I’ve ever had, not just because it’s my final Daytona 500, but because you’ve got to try and plan it out and play that chess match and play it really really well,” Gordon said.
Gordon called the three rounds “nerve-racking” and said it wasn’t his plan to sit that long on pit road.
“I really wanted to go sooner than that,” he said.
Also locking themselves into the field based on qualifying speed: Aric Almirola, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards. It was a huge relief for Edwards, who moved to Joe Gibbs Racing in the offseason, and his new fourth car was not guaranteed a spot in the field.
Making the field on owner points from last season: Harvick, Newman, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth. Stewart was locked in on the past champion’s provisional.
After the qualifying session, NASCAR said Hamlin and defending race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. had their qualifying times disallowed for failing inspection. It did not change that Hamlin is already locked in the field.
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