Turn 4 TV: Junior vs. Harvick?
Keselowski rolls to pole
After weeks of build-up and anticipation, NASCAR finally staged its first elimination-style qualifying session for the Sprint Cup Series.
What resulted was well, kind of a letdown.
Traffic was never a problem in qualifying for the Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway; there were never more than eight to 10 cars on the track at any given time. Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski quickly laid down fast laps during the cloudy opening stages, then sat out the remainder of the initial 30-minute elimination session and watched as nobody could go quicker than their Team Penske Fords.
There wasn't much drama on the bubble, either. Denny Hamlin locked himself into the 12-driver pole shootout with several minutes to spare, though his margin over 13th-placed Kevin Harvick of 0.001 second was about as close as you can get.
The notable aspect of NASCAR's first attempt at anything other than single-car qualifying was the measures teams took trying to keep engines cool. After making an initial run, numerous teams completely removed tape from the car's grille openings and had the driver run a few laps at slow speeds in an effort to maintain safe oil and coolant temperatures.
Ambient temperatures were in the low 80s for qualifying, with cloud cover early in the session giving way to bright sunshine.
"The cooling thing, they need to adjust that," said four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who qualified 17th. "The only thing that's limiting us from making more runs is the temperature of the engine."
Logano's 25.864-second lap in the full-field session was just a hair off the PIR track record Jimmie Johnson set last November. Aside from Keselowski and Hamlin, the other drivers who made the top 12 included Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, Johnson, and Daytona 500 winner (and Phoenix practice pacesetter) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The 10-minute pole shootout produced more excitement, including a track record. Logano did it first with a 25.850 second lap, only to be pushed down to P2 by a pair of laps by his teammate Keselowski good enough for the pole, the best of which stopped the clocks after 25.828 seconds.
With three minutes remaining, only seven drivers had made a qualifying run. But it didn't make any difference because nobody had any answer for the Penske pair.
"It's great to have Team Penske 1-2 for the first time with this qualifying system, and at Phoenix -- the first race track we go to where handling comes into play," Logano said. "You get to show off all that hard work from the offseason for the first time. To come here and start off strong is a big deal for our whole team.
"Obviously a really fast car, and there is some pride to be taken in being the first to win a Sprint Cup pole using this format," added Keselowski. "A testament to my team and how fast a car they gave me. It was just a matter of executing on my end. When they told me the time, I said, 'I'll take it!'"
Not surprisingly, the talking point afterward was the car cooling issue. Jamie McMurray, who qualified third in his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, said he wasn't surprised to see the 30 mph cooling laps.
"We talked about it last night at dinner," McMurray said. "I was surprised the way everyone took off right away, I think anticipating trying to get the car cooled down to make another run. If they would let you cool the engine down, you could run full tape.
"I think all the teams would go along with using the cooldown unit on pit lane during qualifying," he added. "Otherwise, people are going to be buying more powerful batteries and fans, and it's going to end up costing everyone extra money."
Rookie Kyle Larson, who impressed by qualifying eighth for Sunday's race, said there is a safety aspect to cars slowing down to cool down that must be considered as well.
"It was a little sketchy for other cars at speed," he said. "I'm sure NASCAR will tweak on it some."
Keselowski is a fan of the new system, and not just because he earned his fourth career Sprint Cup pole.
"It's a lot more nerve-racking, and as a rule of thumb, that usually means it's a lot more fun for our fans and partners," Keselowski said. "I like it because it fits my style, but what the fans think is more important, and I'll be interested to see their feedback over time."
Coming soon. Maybe people will ask Stew something other than "How are you feeling?" pic.twitter.com/wP4e2qojDn— John Oreovicz (@IndyOreo) February 28, 2014
Junior happy with long media tour
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Daytona 500 media tour ended precisely 30 minutes before the first practice session for this weekend's The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
At least, it was supposed to.
Earnhardt hasn't been to his North Carolina home since he took the checkered flag at Daytona on Sunday night. His girlfriend, Amy Reimann, organized a shipment of clean clothes to New York, where most of the NASCAR star's media appearances took place.
Junior probably couldn't wait to get back into the car Friday at PIR. And he picked up performance-wise where he left off at Daytona, posting the only sub-26-second lap at a speed of 138.723 mph to lead the 90-minute practice session.
If he repeats that form in qualifying, he'll earn himself yet another trip to the media center. And he probably won't mind at all.
"Normally, truth be told, drivers complain about being run ragged and taken all over the place to do media," Earnhardt said before practice. "I would have said before the race, 'Man, I hope I win, but I'm not looking forward to that media tour.' But as soon as I crossed the finish line, I was thinking, 'Man, I've got to go on that media tour, and it's going to be fun.' I don't know what flipped the switch, but I was looking forward to everything we had to do this week. It was fun. And it's not a bad problem or a bad distraction to have on a race weekend talking about last week."
Earnhardt said he's looking forward to his first experience with the new NASCAR qualifying format.
"I don't know exactly what [crew chief Steve Letarte's] plan is, but we have a lot of time in between practice and qualifying to sort that out and get an idea of what the rumblings are in the garage," he said. "You know people are talking, and all kinds of information is moving around in that garage to try to capture. We'll see what makes sense."
"We're in the have-nots right now," Hamlin said. "With this Chase package, you can afford to throw big changes at it between practice sessions because so much emphasis is placed on winning, and once you win a race, you're in the Chase.
"If we make the first cut in qualifying, we'll go from there," he added. "If you see you're not going to get there [into the fastest 12], you've got to untape it and go to work on your car. We will use as much of that time as we can to log laps."
Talking To Junior
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton met the media following qualifying for the Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Highlights:
• "We got feedback from the drivers about having to cool down. The reason we don't want the cooldown units out there [on pit lane during qualifying] is we don't want them opening up the hoods and possibly making adjustments. It's management as much as it is anything."
• "We'll continue to solicit feedback from drivers and teams about how we can improve. We had some drivers stop by who said, 'Don't let anybody talk you into using cooldown units.' It's part of the strategy, and there's a whole menu of things that people want to be able to work on. It's important for us to work with the teams and coming up with the right solutions."
• "We were pleased on a lot of fronts. We got everyone through inspection, and we feel like the process is pretty good. I'm not going to say it's a work in progress and give the idea we're going to change everything. I think the sessions were pretty good sessions, and next week, having three sessions instead of two will be different for us as well. I'm not going to put a grade on it, but I'm pretty happy."
PEAK might help you win
Old World Industries, maker of PEAK automotive products, has significantly ramped up its auto racing sponsorships in 2014 both on and off the track.
While maintaining a longstanding partnership with popular NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and an associate backer deal with Michael Waltrip Racing, PEAK has joined up with leading NHRA team John Force Racing as a major associate sponsor. PEAK Antifreeze and Coolant will serve as primary sponsor of Clint Bowyer's No. 15 MWR car at three NASCAR Sprint Cup races this year, and the company's BlueDef Diesel Exhaust Fluid was on the hood of Michael Waltrip's No. 66 Toyota for the Daytona 500.
But it's not just professional racing teams that benefit from PEAK's marketing efforts. Last year, in conjunction with MWR, PEAK started the Stock Car Dream Challenge, giving an up-and-coming racer the opportunity to compete in a K&N Pro Series race with PEAK sponsorship.
Last year, the contest attracted more than 700 entries.
"We're excited that PEAK is bringing back the Stock Car Dream Challenge," Waltrip stated. "For every successful driver, there are thousands in the grandstands looking for their opportunity to prove themselves in the big league. This competition is the real deal for aspiring racers."
But you don't even have to be a real race car driver to earn a slice of the PEAK pie. The world's top sim racers have the opportunity to compete for $20,000 in cash and prizes in the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series Powered by iRacing.com.
iRacing is one of the top racing simulation websites in the world, with authentically adjustable Gen 6 stock cars and laser-scanned tracks with incredible accuracy. Many real-life drivers, including Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and IndyCar Series star Justin Wilson, are among the 50,000 sim racers who subscribe to the service.
"Online racing has become a valuable tool for a growing number of NASCAR drivers who utilize the technology to hone their skills," said Blake Davidson, vice president of licensing and consumer goods, NASCAR. "The new partnership between iRacing and PEAK Antifreeze ensures that online racing will continue to grow for years to come and become further integrated into our sport."
Every event in NASCAR's only officially sanctioned online world championship will be broadcast on iRacing.com and simulcast on Motor Racing Network (MRN.com) and New England Sports Network (NESN.com).
How will qualifying work?
Since the qualifying format was announced in mid-January, teams successfully lobbied for the ability to make changes to the cars during and between qualifying sessions. When vehicles are on track, one helmeted crew member will be allowed over the wall to make adjustments. In the breaks between rounds, three crewmen will be allowed over the wall.
NASCAR originally had ruled that teams could make only minor adjustments -- such as tire pressure, wedge and grille tape -- to cars during the breaks in between qualifying sessions.
"We're going to have to go through this for a few weeks -- both the teams and NASCAR -- to see what challenges are going to come along," said four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "In that first session, I think the key is going to be getting a clean lap. You're going to have everybody trying to do it at once, and that will be tricky. Coordination between the spotter and the crew for making that first run will be important.
"Sticker tires are at their best for the first two to three laps, but you should be able to make a second run," Gordon added. "The other challenge is cooling, because if you just keep pulling tape off, you're not going to go any faster. I understand there are safety aspects involved, but if we're going to make multiple runs, we need to preserve the longevity of the engines."
That point was echoed by Doug Yates of Roush Yates Engines.
"I would say the engine guys are more nervous than anybody, and there has been a lot of testing on the part of the teams to understand temperature management," Yates said. "This is a huge change for us. Usually, you line up and cool the water down and heat the oil up as hot as you can get it, use as thin of oil as you can get and run a couple laps and that's it. We know how the engines react to that scenario.
"This is all new. How many runs are you going to make? How hot will the oil get, which drives the water temperature, and how do you get it cooled back down? There are a lot of factors here. The only thing constant in NASCAR right now is change, and the people that react to it the fastest have the advantage. Hopefully, because we have done our homework, we are part of that group."
Complicating the issue at Phoenix, rain is forecast for most of Saturday, and it's likely that Friday's 90-minute practice session will be the only track time teams and drivers get before the race.
"It takes what was already a challenging day to a whole 'nother level," Gordon said. "Track position is so important at this track, which in some ways makes you prioritize qualifying over the race portion of practice. It really makes you think about managing your strategy for the time you have, and it will be interesting to see how some of the teams handle it."
One team already has showed its hand, as six-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson admitted that crew chief Chad Knaus already had modified the No. 48 team's game plan.
"We showed up in qualifying trim, but, with the threat of rain, we switched to race trim and will flip back over after 30 or 40 minutes," Johnson said. "It would be nice to have the full allotment of practice time, especially with so many changes to the cars and the rules.
"It will definitely put a little more pressure on us today because this is the first test of which team has found speed in their cars and whether they can use these rule changes to their advantage."