TALLADEGA, Ala. - And here we thought a multi-car wreck was the biggest mess that could possibly happen at Talladega.
Saturday afternoon, NASCAR rolled out a modification to the standard three-round format of qualifying at Talladega in which drivers jostled, juked, jived and positioned themselves to, believe it or not, completely avoid driving. And a combination of indecision and incorrect decisions left two Sprint Cup regulars out of the race entirely.
No, it didn't make any more sense as it was unfolding, either. The problem with trying to qualify in a traditional mode at Talladega is that a solitary car has no chance of running anywhere close to the speed that cars can achieve in a pack. And NASCAR further divided the drivers into two separate segments of five-minute qualifying, giving the second group a very good look at how badly the first group messed up.
"You don't want to be the first car out there, because you're going to be the slowest car," AJ Allmendinger said afterward. "The pack's going to run you down."
"The more cars in front of you, the faster you go," Jimmie Johnson said, and the counterintuitive nature of that statement summed up the afternoon entirely.
As a result, qualifying featured the bizarre scene of cars sitting absolutely still while the minutes of qualifying ticked down. No one wanted to be the first car out; the one driver who actually screwed up the courage to get out on the track, Denny Hamlin, was bounced in the first round of cuts.
Drivers tried to time their runs so that they were in the back of their packs, which led to a balancing act: staying toward the back of the pack while still turning laps fast enough to stay ahead of the ticking clock.
Per qualifying rules, the top 36 spots are established by speed, and from that standard, Brian Vickers took first, and Jimmie Johnson took second. After that, positions 37-42 are established by car owners' points. The 43rd spot goes to a past champion.
Accordingly, Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Jeff Gordon, and Tony Stewart took the provisional spots. That left the 17 of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the 51 of Justin Allgaier on the sideline.
"What a weird qualifying session, no way around it," Johnson said afterward. "Confusion on multiple levels."
"You guys know the rules better than me," Brad Keselowski said after the run. "I don't even know what I just did."
The initial round of cuts took out some big names, and by the time they found their smartphones, it didn't take long for them to start tweeting out frustration or relief:
Cars went home today that should never go home.
— Michael McDowell (@Mc_Driver) October 18, 2014
The car is obviously much more competitive than where it will start. Looking forward to the race for sure.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) October 18, 2014
— Trevor Bayne (@Tbayne21) October 18, 2014
I am usually not very vocal about these things but that was pretty silly.
— Josh Wise (@Josh_Wise) October 18, 2014
New qualifying format is awesome but doesn't work on the super speedways. Race will be fun!!!
— Kevin Harvick (@KevinHarvick) October 18, 2014
Provisionals in the Cup race remind me of the way it was 15-20 years ago. Good cars would go home every week.
— Jeff Burton (@JeffBurton) October 18, 2014
Welp... Guess we'll drive to the front.
— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) October 18, 2014
Wow never been so frustrated & confused trying to qualify for a race. Not the way we intended to start the weekend.
— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) October 18, 2014
The key to Talladega qualifying isn't necessarily starting position; at Talladega, everyone has a chance at getting up to the front. But qualifying first gets you the choice of the first pit stall, and that puts Johnson in a very good position to try to close the gap on 8th place to avoid elimination.
In starting news, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski will start at the back of the pack because of an engine and alternator change, respectively. Also, Joe Nemecheck was disqualified from the race when his car failed inspection; the failure let Reed Sorenson back in the race.
And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.