NASCAR tweaks qualifying amid safety concerns

Teams allowed to cool engine on pit road, no cool down laps allowed

Published: March 11 2014 | 5:17 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:28 am in The Inside Track by Jeremiah Davis,

Just two weeks into NASCAR’s new qualifying format was all it took for drivers and teams to discover some glaring glitches.

Despite a consensus feeling that the new format – three rounds of knockout qualifying at tracks 1.5 miles or longer, two rounds at tracks 1.3 miles or shorter – is more entertaining and exciting for fans, a concern over safety became apparent.

Originally, NASCAR did not allow cool down units on pit road while cars were on track each session, meaning drivers were forced to slowly drive around the track, most often at around 60 mph, while others zoomed past at race speed. Drivers and teams were worried a big accident was bound to happen if things didn’t change.

On Tuesday, NASCAR amended its original rules, prohibiting cool down laps on track, and allowing one cool down unit to be connected through either the left side or right side hood flap/cowl flap. Teams also must keep the hood down on the cars during the sessions, and two crew members will be allowed over the wall to support the car and driver.

“The qualifying is new to all of us and as we have said over the past several weeks, we are looking at it from all aspects,” Robin Pemberton, vice president of competition and racing development said in a news release. “Following discussions, both internally and with others in the garage area, we moved quickly to make a few revisions that will be effective starting with our two national series events at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend.”

NASCAR also said the change should only improve upon what’s been a fan-friendly change to begin with.

The format still isn’t set in stone, either, and more changes could come if NASCAR feels they’re needed.

“We believe this will only enhance and improve what has demonstrated to be an exciting form of qualifying for our fans, competitors and others involved with the sport,” Pemberton said. “Moving forward we will continue to look at it and address anything else that we may need to as the season unfolds.”

One driver who’s been a victim of the new qualifying format is Cedar Rapids native Landon Cassill.

Cassill had a career-best finish of 12th in the Daytona 500 this year, but failed to qualify for the past two races at Phoenix and Las Vegas. Though he had faster times than some who made both races, provisional starting positions – grid positions from 36th to 43rd, with one reserved for a past champion, if necessary – were given based on 2013 owner points, of which Cassill’s Hillman Racing team didn’t have any.

Under this qualifying system, if a car does not post a speed that’s in the top 35 in the first session, the final eight positions are awarded to the cars highest in points – in the first three races points are from 2013, the fourth race and beyond from 2014 – that are not already qualified, then re-ranked by their posted speed.

The result was Cassill’s Western swing netted his team no owner points and has them mired in 38th in owner points after three races. That makes qualifying for races equally has hard going forward, because starting at Bristol this weekend, the provisional positions are awarded based on 2014 owner points.

After the Daytona 500, Cassill was upbeat not only for running well in NASCAR’s biggest race, but also because of the points he got for such a high finish.

Even after missing Phoenix, Cassill was still 22nd and would’ve been sitting well had he qualified for the Las Vegas race.

Instead, he and his team – which landed some much-needed sponsorship money before the season – will now be forced to sweat out qualifying once more.

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