TALLADEGA — It’s hard to figure out what’s scarier about NASCAR’s new qualifying format making its restrictor-plate debut at Talladega on Saturday.
It’s all 47 entered running on NASCAR’s fastest track while chasing stakes — the pole for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 — so it’s a chance for the “big one” to happen before the weekend’s big race.
Or, if that’s not worrisome enough, there’s fear of the unknown.
“I don’t know what is going to exactly happen,” defending Sprint Cup points champion Jimmie Johnson said, echoing sentiments from other drivers. “But to win the pole, you’re going to have to go out there and race.”
With that alone, NASCAR is achieving what it wanted when it established multi-round, knockout qualifying for its three national series this year. Qualifying is no longer a beauty contest, where each driver takes his turn on the track, trying to run the fastest lap possible. Qualifying is more like a race now.
At the big tracks like Talladega, it’s a three-round race. The field dwindles after each round, from 47 to 24 to 12 cars. Time dwindles after each round, from 25 to 10 to five minutes, with five-minute breaks between rounds.
The fastest 24 cars move onto the second round. The fastest 12 go onto the third round.
It’s a playoff, with the pole for Sunday’s race as the payoff.
NASCAR’s idea was the make qualifying more appealing to fans, so mission accomplished. NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said attendance has climbed noticeably on qualifying days with good weather this year.
Because Talladega is an impound track, Sprint Cup qualifying will occur Saturday and beef up the day that includes the undercard Nationwide and ARCA series races.
But this weekend will mark the new qualifying system’s first Cup test on a plate track, where large-scale, chain-reaction crashes are known to happen. The Daytona 500 was the only other plate race this season, and NASCAR kept Daytona’s traditional qualifying system for that race.
Could there be the “big one” before the big race at Talladega?
“Yeah, the potential is there. Yeah,” Matt Kenseth said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
It’s all in how various teams decide to play the qualifying game. Some might not care so much about getting the pole.
Earnhardt’s Daytona-winning plate car is displayed in the Daytona museum, after his victory there. His team built a new plate car for Talladega.
“Our willingness to take risks is going to be pretty limited throughout that process,” he said. “We just, you know, need to get into the field with the car. It doesn’t matter where you start other than just picking on pit road.”
Drivers can exit the track at any time during a qualifying round. Those who qualify for later rounds are not obligated to run again.
“Everyone has to sit down and think about what they want to achieve from qualifying,” said David Ragan, who won at Talladega a year ago. “Do you want to sit on the pole? If you want to set a fast time or qualify in the top three or four, you’re gonna have to be aggressive and make some risky moves.
“If you want to be conservative and just make the race, you can be a little conservative and maybe ride behind the pack or have a clean lap and come in and just park it.”
Those hoping to get that fast lap and get off the track will go for it early in the first round, when the largest number of cars is on the track.
“You have to put your lap up very quick, because I think after the first five minutes, the top 18 cars or so are probably going to pit and not be out there,” said Joey Logano, who won last week at Richmond. “So the less cars that are on the race track, the harder it is to run that fast lap.”
Running that satisfying lap means finding the sweet spot in the field.
“The run that you can get on a group that is a football field or two ahead of you is so dramatic,” Johnson said. “I even think that a 10- or 12-car line won’t be as fast as somebody who falls way back in the pack and has a chance, over a lap or two, to pull up into the pack.
“So that’s what every driver is going to try to do, and setting that up is going to be tough because, one, everybody is going to be trying it, and, two, if you see someone behind you coming, why are you going to stay on the gas to help them? So, bailing out of the gas, breaking up the pack and things like that are all possible.”
In the end, however, qualifying speeds will look more like race-day speeds because of the draft, and qualifying will look more like a race. If qualifying looks too much like a race at Talladega, then some drivers might wind up running backup cars Sunday.
“We did the first round at Daytona in Nationwide, and it was a little crazy,” Kenseth said. “But the field is obviously better in Cup. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Nobody knows. That and Talladega are what make the first plate knockout so scary.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.