Feel the heat

Feel the heat
Lee Spencer
By: Lee Spencer
Jul 5, 2014, 11:52 AM

Could NASCAR consider qualifying races at speedways?

We’ll never know what would have happened at Daytona International Speedway had teams been allowed to participate in all three segments of knock-out qualifying on Friday.

While the ‘David Gilliland beats the Goliaths’ storyline of the Front Row Motorsports racer winning the first career pole for his team and his third career Cup pole overall is a heartwarming tale, the process over the last two days was a bust.

No, Mother Nature didn’t help. With second practice and the second and third rounds of qualifying being cancelled due to rain, the dynamic changed.

But watching the drivers sit on pit road attempting to wait out the competition is not much of a contest.

Start: Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet leads
Start: Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet leads

Photo by: Getty Images

“That was a cluster,” I texted to one of the top competition masters in the NASCAR garage.

“Calling that a cluster is an insult to clusters,” he replied.

But seriously, in my story ‘The Waiting Game’ (http://bit.ly/TUuG6F), I question whether it makes more sense to have heat races at speedways to determine the lineup.

Outside of the Daytona 500, there’s no reason to run 150-mile qualifiers. It’s a tradition that solely belongs to the 500. However, for the July race in particular, one long Cup practice session on Thursdays followed by 30 to 40-lap heat races on Friday as the warm up act for the Nationwide Series would ramp up time trials.

Plus, added races would offer the fans a value-added experience. If the Nationwide teams practiced and qualified on Thursdays along with Cup practice, campers might be more inclined to make a long weekend out of the Coke Zero 400 and the NNS teams that encountered problems during time trials would not be scrambling to repair cars just hours before the race.

After posting the seventh fastest lap for the Coke Zero 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr., tweeted, “Qualifying is weird now y’all.” He went on to suggest two 20-lap heat races with the starting field determined by points and “Pole goes to the winner who lead the greatest distance in his heat.”

Following the Nationwide Series race, Earnhardt was asked about his earlier tweets.

“I had a little fun on Twitter today talking about heat races but that’s probably a farfetched idea,” Earnhardt said. “I think they could take what we’re doing and tweak it a little bit for this particular race and Talladega. Maybe shorten it a little bit, maybe shorten up the segments where it forces everyone to go. I doleft|n’t know if you throw it in the trash just yet.”

This year, NASCAR introduced knockout rounds of qualifying featuring three sessions of 25, 10 and five minutes where the 40-plus car field drops to 25 and then 12 drivers on tracks longer than 1.25-miles.

Between the teams that wait to the last minute to make a run and the varying degrees of the speeds of cars on pit road and the track, it’s a precarious position for drivers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Covy Moore

While Earnhardt doesn’t profess to have all the answers, he remains a proponent of short qualifying contests.

“Heat races are always fun,” Earnhardt said. “You can’t never go wrong with heat races in my opinion, but we got away from them for some reason. Cause that’s what they used to run in the 50s and 60s and pretty much at every race track was heat races. I remember when we started out at Myrtle Beach running late models, they ran heat races when I got there and by the fourth year we weren’t running them anymore for some reason.

“At this particular track, it’s the waiting around, the foolishness of sitting on pit road and wanting to be the last off of pit road rather than just going out there and hustling and go after. Maybe just shorten up the segments. I’m sure NASCAR is thinking about it, talking about it. They have people that are a lot smarter than I am that can figure it out.”

Robin Pemberton, Vice President for Competition of NASCAR
Robin Pemberton, Vice President for Competition of NASCAR

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

When vice president of competition Robin Pemberton was asked about the dilemma, he acknowledged that time trials are still a work in progress.

“It’s our first year of doing this and we’ve got a lot of different venues we run at – short tracks, superspeedways, road courses,” Pemberton said. “We have two versions that we do - the short track version and the three session version everywhere else. I think we’ll learn from all of this moving forward and continue to talk and see if there’s anything we need to look at to try to make things better for the fans and better for the competitors.

“I think all in all it’s been a great year for qualifying and a great year for a lot of the different rule changes that we’ve put in play this year. We’ll sit down and we’ll talk about some of these things towards the latter stages of the year and see what we may rub on, do a little changing on.”

As for as contemplating heat races beyond the truck series at Eldora, Pemberton said the concept was not taken into consideration because “it was a bad idea” but because it “could put the teams in a position (where) they cannot compete based on accidents”.

“We weight all those things,” Pemberton added. “Heat races are exciting but when you’re qualifying two hours or so before the event you may but yourself in a position to jeopardize the competitors to be able to compete at a high level.

“Not saying that nothing is ever off the table as time goes on. We’ll continue to look at things. We have a stack of ideas and paperwork that we go to and review. But that was the reason behind it.”

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