Talladega turmoil? No one knows what to expect in qualifying

High drama and chaos could rule the day when NASCAR tries knockout qualifying for the first time at a restrictor-plate track. The drivers are as curious as the fans to see what happens.

Drivers were not averse to going three-wide and four-wide during Friday's practice sessions at Talladega, and qualifying could be the same.

©2014 Lesley Ann Miller / Los Angeles Times




The unknown.

High drama.

The potential for calamity and destruction at any given moment.

All of these have long been staples of racing at Talladega Superspeedway. Starting on Saturday, they will be staples of qualifying, too.

Saturday (1 p.m. ET, FOX) at the mammoth 2.66-mile speedway, NASCAR will institute knockout qualifying for the first time at a Sprint Cup restrictor-plate race. And the drivers themselves are as curious about what to expect as race fans are.

I don't think anyone knows for sure what's gonna happen.

Joey Logano

This much is certain: There will be three rounds of qualifying, a 25-minute session for all 47 Sprint Cup cars entered at Talladega, followed by a 10-minute session for the fastest 24 drivers from round one and then a final five-minute session for the 12 drivers who were fastest in the second session. The pole winner will be determined by the fastest speed in the final session.

Anything else is pure guesswork at this point. Will the drivers run in a big pack to maximize drafting speed? Will they run in smaller groups to minimize the risk of crashes? Will they be aggressive or cautious?

At this point, no one knows. Just like no one ever knows what will happen during these most unpredictable of races.

"I don't think anyone knows for sure what's gonna happen," said Joey Logano, the only driver who has advanced to the final round of qualifying in all nine Cup races this year.

Logano wasn't alone in that assessment.

"I guess the truth is none of us really know," said Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champion and 2013 runner-up.

Yet with all the unknowns, there will be strategy and there will be gamesmanship. Count on it.

"Obviously the bigger the group is and the farther you are back from it to a certain point the bigger run you're going to go and the fastest lap time you are going to get," Kenseth said. "That's not a secret and everybody knows that so everybody is waiting for that group. There's never going to be a group, so I think it's going to be kind of funny to watch. I don't know how it's going to work."

"To win the pole, you're going to have to go out there and race (during qualifying)," said six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, a two-time Talladega winner. "And the run that you can get on a group that is a football field or two ahead of you, is so dramatic that 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."

Johnson said the preferred strategy would be difficult to execute, though. 

"Setting that up is going to be tough because No. 1, 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?" Johnson said. "So, bailing out of the gas, breaking up the pack, and things like that are all possible. So, I don't know. It's going to be exciting for sure. We'll all clearly be working on it during practice. And then qualifying itself will be very exciting."

Johnson said his Hendrick Motorsports team still hasn't decided how it will approach qualifying.

"The thing I'm trying to come to grips with is where do I take a large risk? Trying to qualify well or trying to work my way through the pack to get to the front?" Johnson said. "And we're just not sure right now what to expect. We wanted to come here with a plan in place of how we were going to qualify, but our opinion seems to change every 15 minutes. And we're going to wait until after P2 and decide what we're going to do."

Johnson's teammate and five-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he plans to be conservative in qualifying. "We built a brand-new race car so our willingness to take risks is going to be pretty limited throughout that process," Earnhardt 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."

As for what Earnhardt thinks will happen on Saturday, he was as curious as everyone else.

"Nobody knows," he said. "I just don't know. We will just have to see."





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