Awkward qualifying session puts Austin Dillon on pole

by Justin Schuoler On Sat, Mar. 16, 2019

Austin Dillon poses for a selfie with a fan before going out for qualifying at Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400. Photo by David Myers for Speedway Media.
Austin Dillon poses for a selfie with a fan before going out for qualifying at Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400. Photo by David Myers for Speedway Media.

In a wild turn of events (or lack thereof), Austin Dillon will lead the field to the green in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday.

“At that point, my spotter said you can bring it around here, I knew we had gotten the pole,” Dillon shared with the media after Ryan Blaney attempted to make an evasive move at the line for the pole. “God never ceases to amaze me, Man. It is awesome to see the blessings that have been bestowed on me. It is special.”

So what led up to this interesting statement? Truth be told, no one ran an official time in the third and final round of qualifying. Blaney shot down below the apron in desperation to reaching the line in time, but he and the rest of the 12 cars fell short by a second or two. Therefore, starting positions for Sunday’s race were declared by the second round of qualifying. This will be a much different qualifying recap than I’m used to writing, so first to the recap.

Austin Dillon was fastest in both the first and second session of qualifying. No surprise there, as Richard Childress Racing with both of their Chevrolet Camaros have been strong with qualifying runs. Dillon has an average starting position of 11.8 in the first four races of the year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and rookie Daniel Hemric has made the final round of qualifying in the last two races before California’s race. This recent success with the new package has not gone unnoticed, but I’ll address that later on.

Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. were the biggest surprises in the first round of qualifying. Elliott spun on the exit of Turn 2 and rested on the backstretch apron to bring out the red flag. The clock stopped with slightly over seven minutes remaining, enough time to get the track cleared and field reset for more qualifying attempts. At the end, it was an unfortunate day for Truex as the defending race winner qualified 27th, not advancing into the second round of qualifying.

“It was just that (Cody Ware) ran the bottom in three and four, which is where I wanted to be,” a disappointed yet focused Truex explained for his unusual qualifying time. “Since he was just leaving the pits, he ran high to get his momentum up like normal and just missed the bottom there and that obviously hurt our speed there off three and four. It’s unfortunate, we missed it today off the hauler.

“We’ve been struggling a little bit on Fridays, but I know we’ll be right tomorrow and we’ll have some cars to pass Sunday, but I know we can do it.”

The second round of qualifying went fairly normal, with Dillon winning the second round again. Many of the front runners were also strong in the second round.

Moving into the third round, it seemed like the current ruleset of qualifying with the current package became a “mockery”. At least, that was the word Scott Miller used, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition.

The new package encourages drivers to be anywhere but the first car off pit road. The new package of increased downforce with less horsepower makes drafting significantly more important at 1.5-mile or larger tracks. If they are out front, they face more wind resistance making their car ever so slightly slower. In a sport of thousandths of a second, these fractions of a second truly matter at the top level of the national level of American stock car racing. Thus when the last 12 cars sit on pit road, the reason is simply due to the fact they don’t want to be the odd man out (or in simple terms, the first car to leave pit road).

The field finally left pit road but not with enough time on the clock. The only one to realize this as they left seemed to be Ryan Blaney, who dived to the far inside of the apron on the exit of pit road in an effort to pass Austin Dillon and everyone else by the time they reached the backstretch. But the effort was too little too late. They could not reach the start-finish line in time to begin an official timed run. Dillon was granted the most unique pole award with a third round speed of 0.000 mph over Kevin Harvick, who ironically posted a second best third round speed of 0.000 mph.

I usually write the qualifying recaps for the west coast races and I feel we truly need a qualifying reset. Bear with me as the rest of this is purely opinion-based. I do beg you to read this with a keen eye, an open mind and an understanding of my background. I have been a fan of NASCAR since I can remember, I work as a race official in three of my local racing clubs, and I personally have raced, including winning multiple races a year and a championship. My ultimate goal below is to provide a clear and thorough understanding of what we saw in Friday’s qualifying session, my honest-to-the-bone response, and my ideas of solutions to prevent this in the future.

NASCAR Qualifying: We Just Got Booed

NASCAR has been battling against much social media outcry for “going back to old school racing.” In virtually every case, I side with NASCAR’s decisions while also seeing both sides of the argument, especially with their safety innovations that many other international motorsports series have adopted. However, after Friday’s qualifying session for the Cup Series was “booed” by the fans, it looks like the unanswerable procedure gives a definitive win to the “old school racing” argument.

“I’ve seen it in other sports, but I’ve never seen it in ours. We just got booed,” Clint Bowyer said ashamedly. “It’s disappointing for everybody involved. I saw this coming three weeks ago; I think we all did.”

The changes with the new package and the qualifying rounds were welcomed with patience by all the teams and drivers with the common goal of putting on a better show. When NASCAR made the switch from single car qualifying to group qualifying at the beginning of the 2014 season, Bowyer was actually optimistic of the change. In just its fifth year of the group qualifying at the Cup level, qualifying was booed for quite possibly the first time in history, and not because fans didn’t like who won the pole.

“I know we’re capable as an industry of putting on a better show than that,” Bowyer continued, “And I know they’ll make the right provisions to make that correct. Unfortunately, it’s going to take something like that to make that adjustment.”

The range of responses from drivers was as far as imaginable. Some were in full support of the current situation with a little tweak, such as Joey Logano stating that the answer was to “go sooner.” Others, like Ryan Newman, preferred we went back to the old single car format, believing that’s how qualifying should be, and even thought he didn’t think Friday afternoon was “a very successful use of TV time for our sponsors.” And a few drivers elected to just state “that’s how it is.”

The Qualifying Game Is Being Abused

A very dejected Darrell “Bubba” Wallace had only one remark after the first round of qualifying: “I’ve been disappointed for a while now. We need more money for more speed.” And simply walked away. We were stunned, but myself, I understood the frustration.

What made it more frustrating was looking on pit road. Nobody wanted to be first out of pit road and onto the track for the reasons I stated earlier. Now, Wallace’s statement held even more ground as we saw the teams with the financial and sponsorship backing, as well as the speed and capabilities, not go out for a qualifying run.

I found a Tweet that shows one type of qualifying where drivers can’t manipulate anything against each other, but simply go out and post the fastest time. They placed this side by side with Friday’s qualifying. The best part of this is the comparison of how entertaining to both a diehard race fan and a casual tuner would find the top video, and how easy it is to change the channel watching the bottom video.

To add to Newman’s point, qualifying should be about the fastest time and/or speed. That’s technically what NASCAR is doing according to the charts, but that’s not what is actually being produced on track. What we are now seeing is the clock system being abused at tracks over 1.25 miles. I’ve asked multiple drivers this weekend and a couple weeks ago at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and while I get some mixed responses, I do see a consistent vouch from drivers that it’s turning more and more into “luck” of where you are placed in the pack. Every driver knows that the front car is at a disadvantage, so if you happen to be in back, you don’t have to worry about the mental game because you just wait for the field to go so you have the best chance at a fast time.

With that said, I feel like someone has caught on to this and took advantage of this in a way no one saw coming.

Are We Playing Mind Games Now?

This is purely hypothetical, but let me allow you to enter the mind of a racer for a minute. Austin Dillon may have planned something along these lines all along. Mind games – we see this at all the restrictor plate tracks, like Daytona and Talladega, where drivers work their way through the field and the draft to set up a pass almost a full lap in advance. This is a much different type of racing than, say, short tracks like Bristol, where the racing is heavily physical. That’s why there are short tempers at places like this. Drivers are literally always on edge non-stop for all 15 seconds of their lap for hours on end.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Richard Childress Racing has had fast cars in qualifying. With Dillon leading the pack in the final round, everyone waited for him to leave, but Austin held up the line as the clock started to tick down.

So here’s my racer mind coming into play. Let’s say I’ve won the second round of qualifying. The rules state that if no one gets to run a lap in the third round, qualifying order is determined by the second round. So now the perfect opportunity has come into play for me to place my car in front of the field and act as if I’m willing to lead them off pit road and onto the track for the final round. But since no one wants to be the lead car, the field will naturally follow me like sheep until either one of two situations happen. First, someone may lose patience and get around me to take the green flag before time runs out. That’s an advantage to me because I get to draft off them. Second, I can manipulate the timing to go from pit road to maybe a few hundred feet before the start-finish line when the clock strikes zero and now, no one can get back to the line in time. I’ve planned this all on purpose to secure the pole from the second round.

Again, I will make this very clear. I am in no way accusing Austin Dillon of cheating, manipulating rules, deviating strategies or whatever other words you want to insert here. I’m just sharing what I would have prepared for if I were in Dillon’s position. And, as it turned out, Dillon happened to be out front a few hundred feet before the line when the clock did indeed hit zero, thus earning the pole by default.

This is a perfect example of giving drivers an inch, and sometimes, they will take a foot and fall flat on their faces. Logano admitted this.

“We blew it, but at least we all did,” Logano shrugged as we asked him his thoughts on the final round of qualifying. “That is the game. It is just part of it.”

Should Drivers Be Penalized For Not Qualifying?

This question has been floating around on social media ever since the unfortunate events took place at Fontana. However, I feel the drivers penalized themselves for the failed third round. Many of the drivers admitted to being embarrassed for the lack of performance, to put it lightly. And for the few fans that were in the stands, the booing was dreadfully felt and clearly heard across the entire speedway.

“I looked up there in the stands after we got out of our cars and I felt bad for those people, because they paid money to come watch us qualify,” Aric Almirola said. “And they didn’t even get to see us post a lap in the final round.”

NASCAR has already faced similar issues in 2014 and 2015 in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Trucks Series.

“They fixed it in trucks, right?” a clear-minded Kyle Busch stated, possibly sarcastically. “[They] made single-car qualifying.”

It also probably didn’t help that at the end of the day, my phone gave me an alert about the Speedway Motorsports Incorporated stock prices at the end of the day Friday, down 3.31 percent to $15.49. Was this hand-in-hand with today’s mishap? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not well-versed in economics enough to be able to begin to understand, let alone desire to. I just want to help where I can and when I can to provide what Scott Miller wants, a good show.

“We hoped things would go better than that,” Miller shared with the media immediately after the third round had concluded and Dillon had left the media center. “Obviously, we have a little work to do on our part to get a better format so things like that can’t happen. We certainly want to provide our fans with what they deserve, and we — and the teams — didn’t do a very good job of that today. So we’re certainly disappointed.”

So What Is the Solution from Auto Club Speedway’s Qualifying Failure?

Miller did state that they are working on a solution, but since Martinsville doesn’t rely on the draft, we should see new rules implemented before the race at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s noticeable that patience is running thin on Fridays as Bowyer admitted. It’s easy to say to switch back to single car qualifying. Everyone is now awaiting to see what these new rules may be for the next 1.5-mile oval. It’s easy to look at all the other options for qualifying and do a random draw.

But it’s also easy to give up. And that’s one thing I don’t see anyone here doing, despite how much we left Auto Club Speedway scratching our heads.

Kevin Harvick’s statement summarizes our current situation well, “I think the crowd booing tells the story.”

** The opinions expressed on this site are not necessarily those of the publisher. All comments other than website related problems need to be directed to the author. (c)SpeedwayMedia.com. **

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