TALLADEGA, AL – The high-speed chess match that has long been a trademark of racing at Talladega Superspeedway will now extend into qualifying, as Saturday marks the debut of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ new rapid qualifying format.
Qualifying for Sunday’s running of the GEICO 500 Sprint Cup race will begin at 3:40 p.m. Saturday. The field will be divided by random draw into two 23-car groups, and each group will compete in what is basically a mini five-minute race. The 24 drivers who post the fastest lap speeds from either group will advance to the second round of qualifying and will be guaranteed a starting spot in the top 24 for Sunday’s race.
Those 24 drivers will then compete in another five-minute dash, with the 12 fastest lap speeds advancing to the final round of qualifying. That speedy dozen will take part in a final five-lap shootout, and the driver with the quickest lap speed during that session will sit on the pole for Sunday’s GEICO 500.
Strategy for the drivers under this format will be similar to what they face on race day in terms of finding drafting partners and plotting how and when to make a pass. But because each qualifying session will last only five minutes, the drivers will have to quickly turn those plans into action.
“Qualifying is going to be based on the group you’re in and if you can catch someone in front of you,” said Jimmie Johnson, a two-time winner at Talladega Superspeedway. “So there will be so many more circumstances that determine your qualifying effort. The short format will put an emphasis on everybody going (fast) right away.”
Denny Hamlin, who won the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway in May, agreed. “Really it’s going to be whatever group forms up the best,” Hamlin said. “You could have all 24 cars from one group moving on to the next round. We’re just going to try to get out there and form something pretty quick.”
Seven of the 12 drivers who are still in contention for the Sprint Cup championship are in the first group, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. He will be joined by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Kasey Kahne, as well as Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman. Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch also will be in the first group.
Jeff Gordon will be the only Hendrick Motorsports driver in the second group, so he might attempt to draft with Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing, since SHR has an engine alliance with Hendrick. Chase drivers Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano also will be in the second group.
Reddick takes Truck Series pole: The new qualifying format was initially put on display Friday afternoon in Camping World Truck Series qualifying for the fred’s 250 Powered by Coca-Cola, with 18-year-old Tyler Reddick capturing the first pole of his career.
“I had no idea we’d be able to get a first-place qualifying position,” Reddick said. “That’s just the uncertainty with this new qualifying format. You don’t know what’s going to happen until it’s said and done with.”
Tyler Malsam qualified second and will start on the outside of the front row for Saturday’s race, which is scheduled to begin at noon. CWTS points leader Matt Crafton qualified third, followed by Johnny Sauter fourth and Ryan Blaney fifth. Mobile native Darrell Wallace Jr. will start 27th.
Crafton, who holds a 19-point lead over Sauter in his attempt to become the first CWTS driver to win back-to-back championships, was one of several drivers who said they enjoyed the faster pace of the new qualifying format.
“I like it. It’s definitely a lot better than what we’ve had,” Crafton said. “I’m sure all the fans and the people watching on TV probably like it more. It’s a little more chaotic.”
The fred’s event gets the green flag at 12 Noon Saturday (LIVE on FOX and MRN/Sirius XM), and later in the day at 3:40 pm (CT), the Sprint Cup drivers take to the track for Food Land/Food Giant Pole Qualifying (LIVE on ESPNEWS) for the GEICO 500.