LAS VEGAS (AP) — Joey Logano believes two facts are abundantly clear after he emerged from the organized chaos of NASCAR’s first three-round knockout qualifying session Friday with the pole position at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
This new qualifying system is a whole lot more interesting than the prior system.
And nobody is quite sure what they’re doing yet.
“It gets crazy out there,” said Logano, who earned his eighth career pole. “I think it’s way cooler than old-style qualifying, don’t get me wrong. It’s awesome. ... We’re all learning right now. It’s all new to us, but we’re having fun with it. I enjoy it. I think it’s cool.”
The Penske Ford team has figured it out better than most. Logano won the pole for Sunday’s Las Vegas race with a qualifying lap at a track-record 193.28 mph, and he’ll start on the front row next to teammate Brad Keselowski, who came in second at 193.099.
The Penske drivers swept the top two spots for the second straight race, reversing their two-round qualifying finish in Phoenix a week ago. Clint Bowyer finished third, with Austin Dillon in fourth and Jimmie Johnson in fifth.
NASCAR added the knockout system to goose interest in a dull weekly ritual, and it’s working. The teams are challenged by multiple chances to hit top speed. The drivers are both worried about the danger and excited by the challenge.
And fans seem quite intrigued, judging by the larger-than-normal crowd in the Speedway stands.
“That’s the whole point of this,” Logano said of the fan turnout. “A lot more preparation goes into it, a lot more communication between myself, my spotter, my crew chief. Not really about our race car, but how are we going to go out there, and what’s our game plan? Every time we’ve had a game plan going into it, it’s changed so far. At least we’re pulling audibles and they’re working.”
Drivers are understandably concerned by the huge speed disparities on the track during the qualifying sessions. While some drivers were going about 30 mph to cool their engines, others were ripping right past them about 150 mph faster, resulting in a handful of near-misses. Brian Vickers even called Friday’s session “the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in a race car.”
Bowyer echoed the mix of excitement and concern.
“Our normal deal is to be scared once a weekend,” Bowyer said of the previous one-lap qualifying scheme. “Three times is a lot to ask out of us. You know, it is really exciting.”
Logano is expecting NASCAR to eventually allow teams to use portable cool-down units instead of taking those dangerously slow cool-down laps. As for the strategic decisions necessary to turn the best laps in the allotted time, everybody is still working on it.
“So much more goes into qualifying,” Logano said. “To me, it’s even more special to get a pole.”
As if the knockout style wasn’t exciting enough, the majority of the drivers surpassed the previous track speed record during qualifying. Bowyer and Keselowski expect track speed records to fall all season under the cars’ new setups.
“It’s just simple physics,” Keselowski said. “The cars make 300-400 pounds more downforce. The engine manufacturers continue to find more horsepower, so they’re going to go faster. I don’t think it has anything to do with this (qualifying) format. In fact, I think if it wasn’t for this format, they would be even faster.”
Defending champion Matt Kenseth finished way back in 29th place, failing to make it out of the first knockout round. Overall standings leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 14th, between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon.