Brad Keselowski will start The Profit 500 from pole as Team Penske reigned supreme in the debut of NASCAR’s new qualifying format.
New rules for 2014 has seen NASCAR adopt a more European style qualifying format, not too dissimilar to the format found in Formula One. Due to Phoenix International Raceway being a one-mile circuit, all drivers went out on track for an opening thirty minute session to decide grid positions 13-43. The top 12 fastest drivers from the first session then took back to the track for a ten-minute Pole shootout.
Joining Keselowski, who ran a 139.384mph lap, on the front row of the grid will be team-mate Joey Logano, who was the fastest man in the opening session, with both drivers beating the previous record of 139.222mph set by Jimmie Johnson in last year’s November race.
“It’s a lot more nerve-wracking,” said Keselowski. “Usually there’s a pretty good rule of thumb: if it’s a lot more nerve-wracking for drivers, it’s a lot more fun for fans and partners and all those things. That’s a good thing. I’m more curious about the feedback we get from our fans and everybody else, whether or not they liked it, because, at the end of the day, it’s not about whether I like it. It’s about whether they like it. I like it, because it fits my style, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s about what our fans care for, and I’d be interested to see the feedback over time.”
Jamie McMurray took a strong third place in the #1 Chevrolet, suggesting that the new format and some new technical tweaks had worked well for him, having failed to take a top five grid slot on an oval for the entire of 2013. Rounding out the top five were the Hendrick Motorsports duo of reigning champion, Johnson, and Daytona 500 winner, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin completed the Top 12 in the ten-minute shootout session.
As was to be expected, the majority of the drama came in the closing minutes of the opening thirty minute session, with a number of cars waiting as late as possible to set a time. Kevin Harvick was one of the biggest losers in the run down to the flag, holding a top 12 place with just 6 minutes left on the clock, only to be beaten by late runs from Earnhardt, Jr. and Hamlin.
However, the most worrying element of the entire qualifying format came when drivers were desperately trying to cool off their engines, running around at 30mph while drivers on hot laps were storming past at over 100mph.
“When you’re going out there and you’re going 100 miles per hour slower, the closing rate is really fast, so it’s kind of scary,” said Logano, while McMurray suggested that NASCAR allowed the use of generators to cool the cars off on pit road, rather than risking ruining a fellow competitors lap or even causing an accident.
“It’s important for us to work together with the teams to come up with the right solutions,” added NASCAR Vice President of Competition, Robin Pemberton, who said that allowing cooling units in the pits could detract from the strategic element of the new qualifying format.