Brian Vickers won the pole for Sunday’s Geico 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, where a new qualifying format frustrated and confused some of the sport’s top competitors.
And given the track’s history, where drivers qualified might not matter anyway.
Under crystal-clear fall Alabama skies, pole winner Vickers claimed the top spot with a lap of 196.129 miles per hour in his No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. It was the 12th career pole for Vickers and his first since August of 2009, a stretch of 188 races.
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The pole was one of the season’s high points for Vickers, who along with the rest of the MWR team has struggled at times this season.
"I just really enjoy being with my guys," said Vickers, who is 22nd in points heading into Sunday’s race. "We’ve had a lot of good days. We’ve had fast cars, we’ve run really well throughout the year. But we’ve had some rough days, you know? … It has been a roller coaster. But definitely, the highs have been higher and I’ve had a lot of fun today. And days like today are what makes it worthwhile."
Qualifying second at 195.732 mph was six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Johnson was followed by AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski.
It was a strange afternoon for the drivers because of a new three-round qualifying format.
"Confusion inside of my car," was how Johnson described trying to qualifying.
"It’s strange," third-qualifier Allmendinger said of the sessions. "I’m not sure if it’s exciting or what it is."
Only four of the 12 drivers in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup qualified in the top 12 – Johnson, Keselowski, Kasey Kahne (8th) and Ryan Newman (11th). Keselowski, however, will start from the rear of the field Sunday because his Team Penske squad will have to change the alternator on his car and this is an impound race.
For this time out at Talladega, qualifying rules were heavily modified.
The 46-car field was split into two groups of 23 drivers each. Round 1 consisted of a 5-minute qualifying session for each of the two groups of 23.
The 24 drivers with the fastest speed in Round 1 advanced to Round 2, which was 5 minutes in length.
The 12 fastest from Round 2 moved on to the 5-minute third and final round that determined the pole.
Of course, qualifying here is arguably less important than at almost any other track in NASCAR. Since 1999, 17 of 31 Talladega races have been won from a qualifying spot outside the top 10. Denny Hamlin won the spring race here after starting 34th, one position of Greg Biffle, who finished second.
Still, the new format was not a hit with the drivers, especially since the sessions were in late afternoon, after the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race.
"Qualifying’s silly … there’s no strategy to it," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who failed to advance out of Round 1, along with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon. "You just get out there and run."
Chase drivers who didn’t make it out of the first round were Earnhardt (28th), Denny Hamlin (38th), Kevin Harvick (39th), Joey Logano (40th), Kyle Busch (41st) and Jeff Gordon (43rd).
Several of the drivers who didn’t make it out of the first round misjudged their runs and had time expire before they reached the start-finish to do an additional lap.
"Wow never been so frustrated & confused trying to qualify for a race," Tweeted Gordon, who was one of those who mistimed his run. "Not the way we intended to start the weekend."
"I think everyone is confused," said Logano. "We … got a good run and drafted off the right guys and were fast enough to make it but we just didn’t get across the line in time."
Matt Kenseth (13th) and Carl Edwards (15th) made it to the second round, but didn’t advance to the final round. Kenseth will start from the rear of the field on Sunday because of an engine change after practice on Friday.
Joe Nemechek, Justin Allgaier and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. failed to qualify.
Nemechek made the field on speed but flunked post-race inspection, which allowed Reed Sorenson to make it in the race.