In announcing the new qualifying format for NASCAR’s three national series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck), NASCAR Vice President of Competition and Racing Development Robin Pemberton participated in a press conference to describe and answer questions regarding the new qualifying format. Below, is a transcript from that press conference (scroll to the bottom of the page for graphic explaining the format):
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for joining. We’re looking forward to the new qualifying format for all three of our national series this year. The new format is something that we have been looking at for quite some time. The goal of providing a more fan-friendly and exciting qualifying session for each race event across the board, with the exception of the Daytona 500 and Eldora, which are unique in their own right.
NASCAR fans will be treated to highly competitive, elimination-based qualifying segments that will been more engaging to fans in the stands and those watching on TV and online. The new format will consist of either two or three rounds of elimination, depending on the track line. With the final round consisting of 12 vehicles battling it out for the right to earn either the Coors Light Pole Award or the Keystone Light Pole Award.
The new qualifying will work like this: At tracks measuring 1.25 miles in length or larger, qualifying will consist of three rounds. The first qualifying elimination round will be 25 minutes in duration and includes all cars and/or trucks. The 24 cars or trucks that post the fastest single lap from the first qualifying round will advance to the second round. The remaining cars or trucks will be sorted based on their times posted in the first round of qualifying in descending order.
The second qualifying elimination round will be ten minutes in duration, and the 12 cars or trucks that post the fastest single-lap time will advance to the third and final round. The fastest remaining cars or trucks earning positions 13 through 24 based on their times posted in qualifying in descending order. The third and final qualifying will be five minutes in duration, and the fastest single lap time will determine positions 1 through 12 in descending order. There will be a five-minute break between each qualifying round.
At tracks measuring less than 1.25 miles, qualifying will consist of two rounds. The first qualifying elimination round will be 30 minutes in duration and includes all cars or trucks. The 12 cars or trucks that post the fastest single lap time from the first qualifying round will advance to the second and final round. The remaining cars or trucks will be sorted based on their times posted in the first round of qualifying in descending order.
There will be a ten-minute break between the two qualifying rounds and the second and final qualifying round will be ten minutes in duration and the fastest single lap time posted will determine positions 1 through 12 in descending order.
As a reminder, this new qualifying does not apply to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying for the Daytona 500 or non-point Sprint Cup Series events, or the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Eldora Speedway.
We believe the timing is right for this new style of qualifying, and for our drivers and teams, we believe it will create even better competition leading into the events. At this time I’d like to turn it over and take questions.
Q. You didn’t mention and it’s not in the release but I wanted to be clear, there is going to be no points or anything awarded to pole winners, and if not, in doing this sort of big change, was there any consideration to doing something to that effect?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yeah, there will not be points awarded to the pole winners. It was part of our discussion along the past few years of looking at things like this. At this time, there will be no points awarded.
Q. I presume that cars can go out as many times as they want for the single car runs or is it like constant running? Is it one set of tires for all three sessions?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yes, cars can go out multiple times, and there will only be one set of tires for all two or three sessions. Only adjustments will be allowed in the breaks in between the sessions.
Q. Do you anticipate that there will be any gamesmanship right away in the new format? I mean, obviously, F1 is a little different in road courses and the way you can block people. But historically drivers have been even at practice kind of upset with each other when somebody goes out and ruins their qualifying run. What kind of things do you think will happen, and will you have to police that at all?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: As always, we’d like to leave it in the competitors’ hands to conduct themselves properly during these sessions. We will always have the ability to make a call when we have to, but at this point in time, we are not anticipating any problems.
Q. You mentioned allowing work to be done on the cars in between rounds. How did you guys determine what you would be comfortable allowing them to work on and what they couldn’t do? Because obviously they can’t change the tires, and there is also something in there about not going under the Hood.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yeah, during this process, we’ve taken the time to talk to drivers and crew chiefs, and what we surmised from that is you should be able to adjust wedge and track bar, tire pressures and tape strategies. The consensus was to not go under the hood and make other extreme adjustments. And the adjustments, I’ll remind you, can only be made during the breaks.
Q. Also am I correct that the pit road speeding stuff is going to be enforced as far as you don’t want guys flying on and off pit road? And if that’s the case, would a penalty for something like that, just your time would be disallowed?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, you don’t want to read too much into it, but we always will have our pit road speed live. We’ll have our conversations with our competitors to remind them of that. We will discourage anybody coming in too hot on a live pit road.
Q. With the way things are now, are they going to stick to the one-engine rule for the weekend? Will teams still be locked into one engine regardless of what happens during qualifying?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: As you know, teams could change engines if they have an issue, and those types of rules will stay in play. We don’t anticipate another two or three laps over the weekend at qualifying that would put a need in for an engine change or a rule that would allow that.
Q. Do you see this as something that’s part of the impetus for this is it will be more exciting for television? That fans it in the stands will watch it and get more excited or draw more viewers, or that it was more fair that it was done this way? And what is your gut reaction to what we’ll see and what the results will be of having qualifying this way?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, as you know, we evaluate a lot of things overtime, and this is one of those that if the timing is right for us and we believe that the fans will be receptive to this. All the ones we’ve talked to so far think it’s a great idea. The competitors think it’s a great idea. It gives us an opportunity to get two or three rounds of qualifying in per event.
I’ve got to believe it’s better for any of the sponsors. It’s better for Coors and Keystone, and it’s going to be a better show for TV and the people at home will have a better opportunity to watch these guys qualify.
Q. What has the reaction been from the tracks? Do you feel like they think it will draw attendance to the tracks as well like it’s another show?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: I think any time you can add content, it’s better for the tracks. You know, it’s better for all of us. One of the things that this format will allow us to do, if you remember the times that we had qualifying sessions that take extended length of times, 90 minutes, two hours to get an entire field qualified one car at a time. What this will allow us to do if we get weather that sets in, it will allow us, if we have the time and if all cars run during that first session, it will allow us to set the field in a 25-minute session. So this will be the advantage of the competitors to get that in.
Q. I’ve got some housekeeping stuff I want to check with you on a couple things. First of all, in regards to the one tire rule, why is that? Obviously, every track is unique, but I think of a place like Atlanta where certainly the tires wear out pretty quickly. It almost made me think that you would have a slower pole time than what you might see in that first session. So could you explain first of all why only the one set of tires for all the sessions, please?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, we believe the one set of tire rule has served us well and our tire limits over the past few years. But as many of us remember, the day that we did have two rounds or three rounds of qualifying at any given venue the pole speed was not always the fastest lap run of the weekend under qualifying situations. We know there are racetracks that are a little more abusive on tires than others, but we feel this will be part of the strategy that will get played out by the teams on how they use their tires or abuse their tires during the three qualifying sessions, two or three qualifying sessions.
Q. Let me ask you a couple other details. I remember when you guys did group qualifying like at the road courses last year, if I remember correctly like a five-minute clock for each group. I think what you guys said was at the time if something happened, you’d stop the clock. With this new rule now, will the clock continue or if there is a caution or they needed to clean up the track, will that segment, that 25-minute stop, or is that just going to be the gamble that you take if you don’t go out early if the rest of the session runs out of time that’s on you?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: No, if there is a situation that comes up, we’ll have to red flag and stop action. We will stop the clock, and we’ll resume when the track is ready to go.
Q. If qualifying is cancelled, is it going to be that the lineup is still set by practice speeds is that going to remain the same as in the past?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yeah, the lineup will be practice speeds. But the field will be set by the rule book.
Q. Did you mention earlier what is the status of provisionals? Are there any provisionals or how are they going to work with the 25 through 43 being set? Or is this the end of provisionals?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: No, no. Provisionals will be as current. So we’ll use the current provisional system that we used in 2013.
Q. At the plate tracks or even any other tracks, you’d be allowed to draft, or are you going to say something like you did at testing and you told teams no tandem drafting? Are you going to set special rules for tracks where you can draft or let the pack go if that’s what they want to do, let them do that?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: If you look at the rules that surround Nationwide and Truck, we’ll manage that qualifying just like we do, and we’ll do at our plate races that we announced during testing. The drafting with the Sprint Cup Series will be allowed for their qualifying speeds.
Q. So Sprint Cup allowed to draft. Then Nationwide and Trucks can’t do the tandem, but you could do some sort of drafting, am I correct in that?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Correct.
Q. So basically you can draft at the plate tracks?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Right, yes.
Q. Do you anticipate drivers just going out and pretty much doing one or two laps with each session kind of the length of the track except for those who are trying to – for those who are just so slow that they’re concerned about making the field?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: It’s hard to anticipate what they’ll do. But I would imagine that many of them will think that their first couple laps on the racetrack, engines will be cold, things of that nature, will be their best laps in that first segment. But it’s hard to imagine what strategies these guys will work on and have play out over the course of the qualifying session.
Q. This all seems to fit nicely into a one-hour TV window. How much would you say like TV possibly played a role versus maybe just what fans in the stands might want on a qualifying day?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, we work with all of our key partners on a lot of these things. This isn’t a decision that was made in a short period of time. It took a lot of work and effort and a lot of areas. Whether it be broadcasters or competitors or sponsors here at NASCAR. So there were a lot of people, a lot of groups that weighed in on all of this. Like everything else that we do, it’s important that everybody’s engaged and we get everybody’s take on the ups and downs of some of these things.
Q. Will this impact like a tire allotment for the weekend? Do teams have to start out on a set of stickers or can they start out on scuffs?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, this falls into the normal tire usage number that we have. So that’s why we kept it at the you can’t change tires in between rounds. So that is to encourage teams to practice when they have practice tires and use one set for qualifying.
Q. You mentioned all your partners have a role in all of this, but is it fair to say that the track owners came to you and said we need a better product on Fridays just in terms of attendance?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: No, what’s fair is people look at our product. It doesn’t matter if it’s a track owner, a car owner, a crew chief, a driver, a sponsor, everybody has different ideas to help move this sport forward. It’s something that we’ve been talking about for quite some time. You know, you make these decisions, some benefit more than others at different times, but I don’t think you could put a finger on any one group that would have encouraged anything like this.
We have really great relationships out there and we work hard together, and these are the products that we come up with when we work hard together.
Q. Earlier you addressed the engagement of the TV partner. But one thing with the plate qualifying, was there a conversation or concern that certainly it wouldn’t be the magnitude of the big one, but you could have a number of cars taken out simply via qualifying, given the dynamics of plate racing?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yeah, when you look at those situations, it’s not unlike any Happy Hour that we’ve had or any other situation. We have race cars on racetracks, and sometimes you have those situations arise. It’s just a situation and you deal with it. If you look at the practice sessions at Talladega last year, teams went out there and hedging their bet that qualifying would get rained out. They drafted as such that they knew they were hoping that the lineup would come out of that, and it did. These are good drivers and they’re professionals, and they take risks. They also know it’s qualifying and not the race.
Q. Since time at Memorial we’ve heard drivers and crew chiefs say after practice well, we decided to go with a qualifying set up in this practice or we decided to emphasis race set-up in this practice. Do you foresee that this format will narrow or perhaps eliminate that gap between the decisions they have to make that this will be that they might come up – that it won’t be as far apart as it used to be one-car qualifying versus race set-up? Do you think this will narrow that?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: It’s hard to say. But there are some racetracks that a qualifying set-up could mean more or less than others. So I think it remains to be seen what the approach will be from the teams.
I would say if you’re trying to run three sessions, the potential there is that you may have a closer to a race set-up, but it remains to be seen what approach the teams will take.
Q. One of the criticisms of single-car qualifying forever too is that a one-car qualifying performance does not – is not necessarily, in fact, rarely is, an indication of how the car will perform once the race starts. Do you think that this is going to give people and the teams and everybody a little bit better indication – is this going to more closely simulate race conditions than a one-car set-up? Especially, for example in a draft at Daytona or Talladega summer race, do you think this will more closely simulate race conditions than the old way?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: I think in some places you’re correct. It will simulate more of a racing condition. I also believe our competitors work as hard as they can to get any advantage that they can. I know that throughout the summer we’ll see trends develop through the race teams to get the most out of these types of sessions.
It’s hard to outguess these guys. They’re the best in the business. We’ll just have to sit back and watch how this unfolds.
Q. So to see a serious evolution of this throughout this season and maybe even beyond as this whole situation evolves?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: I believe so. I also believe times when you look at any particular weekend where weather may make a play on us and potentially rain out a Happy Hour session, I think the teams will be happier to run more of their race set-ups to get into the race.
Q. I want to ask about the excitement format with the knockout format here. I’m assuming you guys weighed multiple formats before you came to this decision. What made the sanctioning body decide that the level of excitement would be highest with the knockout format as opposed to say another one, like maybe a tweaked version of the group qualifying you have for road courses or even heat races? Just your thoughts on that?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: We’ve talked about a lot of different formats. Really for us to try to be as consistent as we could across the board for all of our racetracks and our stakeholders, we felt like this format here was going to serve as the best right now, with three rounds at our bigger tracks and two rounds. And so we looked at a lot of different things. We kept coming back and kept pointing to this that it could be the best for us currently.
Q. You were a successful crew chief for many years. Put your crew chief hat on if you were seeing this for the first time, what would your reaction be and how would it change your strategy?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: It’s hard to – my reaction would be that this is pretty cool for a number of reasons. One, I feel like in the event that we may get rained out that a short 25-minute session or 30-minute session, and we can get the whole field sorted. I think that’s better for all of the competitors.
But if I was a crew chief I would say it gives me a good opportunity to get good laps in. I think as we move through the season it will take on a life of its own at different places where they will have different strategies, whether it’s working on the race set-ups, or if they want to be aggressive in one round or kind of lay-up in the other round, saving tires to just squeak into the final round and have the best tires. Comes to mind what you would have to do with tire management for California Speedway or Atlanta, Homestead and some others. I think there are opportunities there for different crew chiefs to take advantage of some of these situations.
Q. Couple operational questions about the practical way this is going to work. You’re going to line the cars up in order of a random draw. But at a place like Daytona 500 for the Nationwide Series or even Indianapolis where catching a cloud might be advantageous, it’s up to them when they go out on the racetrack. Is that correct?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: That would be correct.
Q. The second one is just to clarify, for someone that’s advanced from round one to round two or three, if the lap they ran in round ones was faster, which is the lap that counts, the lap in the session?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yes, and each session will be treated separately. So you think back. You’ve been around a while. You think back to the old days where we had one or two or three sessions and you merely were just sorted, whatever session it was in the first. So the speeds actually didn’t count towards getting you to the next session or re-sorting it in session two or three. So we’ll start over a new session.