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October 25, 2014

Joe Medley: ‘Knockout’s’ plate debut at 'Dega was, in a word, quirky

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Posted: Saturday, May 3, 2014 3:15 pm

TALLADEGA -- One of the funnier moments in recent Talladega Superspeedway history involved slow reaction on pit road.

Warrick Dunn, the former Atlanta Falcons running back, was grand marshal. He was about to give NASCAR drivers those most famous words in motorsports, only he didn’t.

“Gentlemen,” Dunn roared. “Crank! It! Up!”

There was a pregnant pause, followed by one engine roaring to life … then another … then a few more … then the whole field.

Clearly, drivers were expecting “start your engines.”

Another, very pregnant pause fell over the inaugural “Knockout” qualifying session at Talladega on Saturday. It was as if all 12 drivers who had advanced to the last of three rounds were, well, knocked out.

The five-minute, final-round clock counted down to four. Still nobody moved off pit road.

The clock counted down to three minutes. Still nothing.

Finally, at 2:20, Ryan Newman took off. Others waiting to see which driver would go first followed, and the abbreviated final round was not only up but moving.

There was a logical explanation for the seeming absurdity of race cars sitting still during a live race.

“I knew that when we started that last session it was going to be a waiting game,” pole winner Brian Scott said. “Who was going to get impatient first or panic first was going to head out there, and then it was going to be game on, and you were going to get one or maybe two laps.”

NASCAR’s new qualifying format made its restrictor-plate debut Saturday at Talladega, and it was … it was … quirky.

That’s no shock. Just about anything would look quirky, compared to the old system of one car running on the track at a time, vying for the fastest lap in the field.

That drivers across the board seemed stumped about to expect out of the new format’s plate debut on NASCAR’s wildest track probably added to the quirkiness.

It looked like three mini-races, and that was by design. NASCAR wanted to make qualifying more fan-friendly, hence the change for 2014, starting after the season-opening Daytona 500.

Then again, Saturday’s “Knockout” rounds weren’t really races. The first driver over the finish line wasn’t the winner.

The drivers with the 24-fastest laps won the first round. Times reset, and the drivers with the 12 fastest laps advanced to the third round.

Once the third round got started, Scott had the fastest lap. He achieved it on the final lap, partly because Richard Childress Racing teammate Paul Menard mistakenly made his move a lap early.

The final lap started with about 20 seconds left, and drivers are allowed to complete the final lap started. Scott used Menard’s car to suck up in the draft and get that fastest lap.

So ended the plate debut of a format that allows drivers to exit the track, once satisfied with their lap. Those who advance don’t even have to compete in the next round.

Not everybody came away liking the “Knockout” format. Matt Kenseth, who qualified 22nd, said it was “a little bit of goat rope.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. came in with a plan to race conservatively with a newly built car and qualified 30th. Even with all things considered, “It just wasn’t much fun,” he said.

Cup points leader Jeff Gordon, however, had advocated for a less boring qualifying format and liked what he experienced.

“I knew it was going to be intense and pretty wild,” said Gordon, who qualified 11th. “It certainly lived up to that.

“You just have no idea how close you are at every moment of having a crash. I feel very fortunate that we were able to get into the final round.”

The “big one” crash that some feared never materialized. Qualifying speeds topped 200 mph, thanks the existence of a draft, and drivers will get better at this “Knockout” thing on plate tracks with experience.

Still, it was quirky Saturday. All of the action was at the back of a pack, the sweet spot in the draft in terms of maximizing speed.

Then there was that bizarre standoff for the first 2:40 of the final round, leaving all to wonder when somebody would, indeed, crank it up.

So smile, Warrick Dunn. You’re no longer responsible for Talladega’s funniest and most awkward moment in recent history. NASCAR did that with a rule change.

Contact Sports Columnist Joe Medley at jmedley@annistonstar.com. On Twitter, @jmedley_star.

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