TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — NASCAR’s new qualifying format put Brian Vickers on the pole at Talladega Superspeedway but left many drivers angry and confused, and three full-time teams failed to make Sunday’s race.
Kevin Harvick called the format “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” and Kyle Busch said heat races should be used to set the field at superspeedways.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. called for a return to single-car qualifying at Daytona and Talladega instead of the group formats, and Jeff Gordon tweeted, “Wow never been so frustrated & confused trying to qualify for a race. Not the way we intended to start the weekend.”
Drivers admitted when they arrived at Talladega that they didn’t understand the qualifying format, and it showed as there were no clear strategies throughout the field.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier, two full-time Sprint Cup Series drivers, failed to make the field.
“I have no idea if I made the race or not,” Stenhouse said as the second round of qualifying began. “I asked if we made it, and nobody knew.” Stenhouse drives for well-funded Roush-Fenway Racing, one of the top teams in NASCAR.
Reed Sorenson initially didn’t qualify, but got into the race when Joe Nemechek was disqualified for failing inspection.
Not making the field was met with outrage on Twitter from some of Stenhouse’s fellow drivers, who felt it was an injustice to a regular competitor.
A.J. Allmendinger and Jimmie Johnson had a more pragmatic outlook.
“Racing is not really fair most of the time,” Allmendinger said.
“If I was them, I would be upset, but we all knew what the rules were coming into it and what could happen,” said Johnson.
NASCAR cut the field in half for the first round of qualifying, when 23 cars had five minutes to make their qualifying lap. Nobody wanted to be the first driver on the track, and many sat on pit road waiting for traffic to pull out.
They all wanted to turn their laps while racing in a pack to get the most speed on one of the two tracks in NASCAR that requires the use of horsepower-sapping restrictor plates.
The first drivers were beat by the clock as they tried to time it to make their fast lap at the end of the five minutes, but their times were not counted because many of them failed to cross the start/finish line in the allowable time.
“I thought being the last car in line would be beneficial for us. We had Jeff Gordon leading the pack there I thought we would have a good shot at putting a good lap in, but my spotter was telling me, ‘Hey, you have 30-seconds to get across the start-finish line’ as we were entering Turn 3,” Stenhouse said. “(Gordon) kept slowing the pack down and we didn’t get a good lap and never got across the start-finish line in time.
“My spotter was giving me the information I needed and I wish (Gordon’s) would have been doing the same.”
The fastest 24 in the field then had five minutes to qualify in the second round, with the top 12 advancing to the final segment.
The format allowed part-time drivers Ryan Blaney, Mike Wallace, Michael McDowell and Trevor Bayne to make the field. Michael Waltrip, making just his fourth start of the season, made the race and will compete before he returns to Los Angeles for Monday night’s edition of “Dancing With The Stars.”
Vickers earned the top starting spot, followed by defending NASCAR champion Johnson, who likely needs to win Sunday to advance to the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
“There were a lot of strategies being put into use,” said Johnson, who barely made it out of the first round. “It’s the toughest thing because 20-some guys and a lady have an idea of what is going to work, and timing that right and finding what works for you is impossible.
“Hopefully it is entertaining. You don’t really feel like you are doing your part as a race car driver in a qualifying session like this, but it is plate racing and if it’s entertaining I guess I’m OK with it.”
The bottom of the field consisted of championship contenders Denny Hamlin, Harvick, Joey Logano and Busch and many other NASCAR heavyweights.
Tony Stewart will start 37th and is followed by Hamlin, Harvick, Logano, Busch, Kyle Larson and Gordon.
Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth will drop to the back of the field because Keselowski changed his alternator and Kenseth changed his engine.
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