RICHMOND — With Saturday night’s wild, winning-is-everything finish at Richmond International Raceway in its rearview mirror, NASCAR will head to Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway amid high anxiety about how the sport’s new qualifying rules will play out at the circuit’s longest and most treacherous track.
Unlike traditional qualifying, in which each car circled the track one at a time for a fast lap, NASCAR’s new format puts all 40-plus entrants on the track at once. In the midst of traffic, drivers have 25 minutes to record the fastest lap they can.
At tracks longer than 1.25 miles, such as Talladega, the fastest 24 drivers advance to the second round of what’s billed as “knockout qualifying,” given 10 minutes to post a fast speed. The fastest 12 advance to a five-minute, final round that sets starting positions 1-12.
The upshot has injected new life into what was a tedious excuse for competition. For even ardent NASCAR fans, watching 40-some cars circle a track one by one was stock-car racing’s equivalent of watching paint dry.
But turning qualifying into a free-for-all at 2.66-mile Talladega, where carburetor restrictor plates are mandated to keep cars’ speeds under 200 mph, is veering to the other extreme.
That’s because in constraining horsepower, restrictor plates bunch up racecars in dense packs. As a result, one driver’s misstep tends to trigger chain-reaction pileups. But no racer worth his name can afford to avoid those treacherous packs because the only way to truly go fast at Talladega is to hook up nose-to-tail with a freight train of cars to exploit the aerodynamic draft.
“If I weren’t in it, I would be tuned in to watch,” NASCAR driver Carl Edwards said of Saturday’s qualifying at Talladega. “It’s going to be entertainment.”
That hasn’t eluded officials at Fox Sports, who are moving the qualifying broadcast from Fox Sports 2 to the main Fox network. It’s the first time in Fox’s 14 years of broadcasting NASCAR that time trials for any race other than the Daytona 500 will air live on network TV.
“It absolutely should be crazy,” said former NASCAR crew chief Larry McReynolds, who will be in the Fox booth for Saturday’s 1 p.m. broadcast. “It has created strategy. We’ve created story lines. The days of a fan sitting in the stands and watching one driver run at a time with a stopwatch — those days are over with.”
So too, NASCAR officials concluded during the offseason, are the days of fans buying tickets or tuning in to watch “points-racing” — drivers erring on the side of caution, rather than racing flat-out to win, in order to collect maximum points toward the annual Sprint Cup championship.
After a series of half-measures design to put more emphasis on winning, NASCAR revamped its championship format in bold strokes at the start of the 2014 season. Starting this year, drivers can virtually clinch their spot in stock-car racing’s postseason by winning a race in the 26-race regular season. A series of top-five finishes won’t get the job done, even if they do add up to the most points.
The result was on wildly entertaining display Saturday night at Richmond, where Joey Logano streaked past a paint-swapping gaggle of former champions Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to win his second race of the season.
Tempers flared on the cool-down lap that followed, with fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski ramming Kenseth’s bumper for what he considered unsporting blocking. And within minutes, one nonfactor, Marcos Ambrose, became a YouTube sensation for his roundhouse punch in the face to Casey Mears, another nonfactor, during a shoving match in the garage.
The stakes won’t be as high for qualifying at Talladega. Winning a pole for a NASCAR race doesn’t amount to much money or prestige. And the reality is, there is no track where starting first means less than at Talladega, given the ease with which a last-place driver can streak to the front if he knows how to exploit the aerodynamic draft.
So why risk tearing up a racecar for a dubious achievement?
Some may not.
But most will. They are racers, after all — driven by an insatiable need to be first.
“It’s just kind of a crapshoot, just like the race, but it will be exciting for sure,” predicted Kevin Harvick, one of two drivers to win twice this season. “It will definitely be better than watching three-and-a-half hours of one car going around the track, I promise you that.”