New NASCAR qualifying format set for Pocono debut

Danica Patrick takes her wadded up race car back to the pits in 2013 at Pocono. The unique trioval gives some drivers fits.

Brad Keselowski seems to have a handle on NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying format.

Through the first 13 races, Keselowski has started on the front row in his No. 2 Ford eight times. He has won two poles, including last week at Dover, and qualified second six times.

"Speed is the backbone of any success in motor sports," Keselowski said. "That doesn’t mean it is the totality of what you need. You need more than just that. You have to execute and you can’t make any mistakes across the board with all the ancillary things you have to work on with these cars. In that sense, we have a strong backbone and great speed and we have been executing very well on qualifying day. We have to keep it up. It has been great."

Today, the knockout qualifying format will be used at Pocono Raceway for the first time when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series arrives for the Pocono 400 weekend at the 2.5-mile triangular track in Long Pond.

Here’s how it works:

There are three segments. The first one lasts 25 minutes with all of the cars on the track making laps. At the end of the session, the top 24 cars will advance to the second segment while cars 25 through 43 will be locked into their respective starting positions.

The second segment lasts 10 minutes. The 12 fastest cars will move on to the final segment while Nos. 13 through 24 will be locked into their respective starting spots.

Segment three lasts five minutes with the fastest car winning the pole, the second-fastest starting second and so on.

A five-minute break is held between each segment.

Most of the drivers enjoy the new qualifying format.

"Even though we haven’t done very well at it or I haven’t done very well at it, it doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I do," Jeff Gordon said. "We just have to get the balance of the car a little bit closer for this type of format."

Keselowski said the new format puts more skill and instinct into qualifying.

"I think we all have an interest in seeing the teams that put the most skill and thought into it running up front and winning," Keselowski said.

Because it is the first time the format will be used at Pocono, the drivers are curious to see how it works.

“For the most part, I think you will see something pretty similar that you have seen at the other tracks, with cars trying to get clean air to get a decent lap in," said Joey Logano.

Jimmie Johnson, who holds the track qualifying record of 180.654 mph which he set in August, said he is curious to see how much of a factor tire wear will be. Because of how long a qualifying lap is at Pocono, he said the tires are almost out of grip by the time your car hits turn 3. So he wonders if there might be a fall off in speed.

“It’s the same for everyone and there is enough room on that race track you should be able to get a clean lap and not have to worry about traffic," Johnson said. “I think the format will work well. If you are fortunate enough to time it and get a tow down the front straightaway when somebody is finishing their lap and you are getting up to speed, that could be beneficial to you."

Weather might not be as much of an issue as in the past. Keselowski said Pocono is one of the most sensitive tracks as it pertains to sun and clouds. Under the old qualifying format, if a driver happened to have his turn come up and cloud cover drifted over the track, it could help him during his lap because the track temperature would cool.

Now, since all cars are running at once, they are running under the same conditions.

“It is a fair opportunity for everyone," Keselowski said. “There is nothing that keeps you on pit road if you want to go out. That eliminates a lot of those variables and it is in your hands to make the right decision."

New format or not, Gordon believes qualifying at Pocono will still be a white-knuckle, hold-your-breath experience.

“You’ve really got to be committed and put the car on the edge," Gordon said. “Even though you can breathe down those long straightaways, you are holding your breath through those corners with the shifting and all the things that are involved.

“Not sure whether or not drafting is going to come into play. I’m not saying we would be bumper-to-bumper, but you might want a car out in front of you to get a little bit of a draft at Pocono. We won’t truly know until we go there and experience it."

Practice for the Sprint Cup drivers is today from noon to 1:20 p.m. Qualifying is scheduled to begin at 4:40 p.m.

On Saturday, there are two practice sessions from 9 to 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m to 12:20 p.m. Then Sunday, the Pocono 400 is scheduled to get the green flag shortly after 1 p.m. Times Tribune

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