NASCAR might return to single-car qualifying on drafting tracks

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After another controversial group qualifying session on a drafting-style track, NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said a return to single-car qualifying is being considered.

“We’re going to look at every option, including the possibility of going to single-car qualifying,” O’Donnell said in his weekly Monday interview on SiriusXM NASCAR’s “The Morning Drive” program. “The reason we haven’t is that’s on the teams. That’s parts and pieces. We’ve tried to be as efficient as possible trying this method of (group) qualifying.

“But we’re definitely going to look at it and see what we can do. We’ve got a couple of weeks to do that. We’ll make adjustments as needed.”

A NASCAR spokesman said discussions of any potential changes have yet to occur. A move to single-car qualifying likely would happen only on drafting tracks. Group qualifying has worked at short tracks such as Bristol Motor Speedway (site of Sunday’s race) where drafting doesn’t happen.

The next track at which group qualifying could be problematic is Kansas Speedway, which will play host May 11 to the Cup Series. NASCAR already has been using single-car qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway (site of the April 28 race) for a few years.

When the lower-horsepower 2019 rules package created more drafting at larger speedways aside from Talladega and Daytona International Speedway, there was speculation that NASCAR would tweak group qualifying (which made its debut five years ago) at those tracks.

But citing the need for “show business” in qualifying, officials have resisted calls for change this season despite debacles at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway (where there were no recorded speeds in the final round) and most recently last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Despite new rules to incentivize teams, the Friday session still resulted in controversy.

Clint Bowyer was particularly upset with NASCAR after feeling he was blocked in by Ryan Newman during the session. Bowyer playfully chided officials about it after finishing second Sunday at Texas.

Drivers have spent nearly the entire final round of each session waiting idle in the pits because the first car to leave is at a disadvantage without a drafting partner (though Daniel Suarez qualified fourth as a single car at Texas).

The strategy results in long periods of inactivity during qualifying.

“It’s really unfortunate for the fans,” O’Donnell said Monday. “It’s miraculous that Daniel Suarez is able to make a lap on his own and qualify fourth, so I don’t know how that’s possible based on all the data the teams seem to be putting together to sit on the end of pit road and wait.

“I think the one clarification on our end, we instructed (Newman) to move. He did that. I think Clint Bowyer could have gotten out and gotten past (Newman), but regardless of that, the optics of what is taking place with the teams is not tenable for us with the fans.”

Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick weighed in with a suggestion Monday morning.

O’Donnell replied “absolutely” when asked whether he was angered by the incessant controversy and openly wondered whether drivers were trying to subvert the process.

“I think it’s ridiculous, candidly,” he said. “I know the drivers did not like this qualifying before the season. Part of you says, ‘Are we doing this on purpose to get rid of it?’ I know it can be done. I know we have the best drivers in the world and crew chiefs to figure it out. We seem to want to outdo each other, and that results in sitting on pit road.

“We’ll react to it. We’ll make the right call and get it right. We don’t want to see cars sitting on pit road for 8 minutes. That’s not NASCAR racing. We’ll make the fix there.”

O’Donnell said any switch would be met by resistance from team owners who lobbied for group qualifying to help hold down costs. A move to single-car qualifying would mean teams focusing on more expensive and specialized parts and pieces.

“If we have to go back to single car, simple,” he said. “We’ll do that. It won’t be popular with some of the owners, but unfortunately, we’re getting put in this position.”

In an interview 45 minutes later on “The Morning Drive”, crew chief Todd Gordon said he liked the current system of group qualifying on drafting tracks, suggesting it needed better elucidation.

“The problem is we’re not explaining what the strategies are, what the pieces are,” said Gordon, the crew chief for Joey Logano. “I like it. If the fan base or NASCAR doesn’t like it, we’ll adapt to what’s next.”

Sitting idle for long stretches during qualifying is just part of the strategy, Gordon said.

“It’s not that we’re doing something deviant,” he said. “We’re doing something that’s been laid out by NASCAR. … That’s the biggest problem. We haven’t done a good job to explain to our fan base, our TV partners, our radio partners what’s going on and what the strategy is and what the rules are.

“There’s a structure here, and we maximize our opportunity as it unfolds.”

Cup starting lineup at New Hampshire has Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch on front row

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Rivals Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch will share the front row for Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Keselowski won his 15th career pole – and first since August 2017 – on Friday. He will have Busch start next to him.

MORE: Cup starting lineup

The rivals have had numerous run-ins throughout the their career.

Kurt Busch, who won last weekend at Kentucky, qualified third and is followed by Erik Jones and Ryan Blaney.

Three drivers will start at the rear: Denny Hamlin (backup), Alex Bowman (backup) and Ryan Newman (backup).

Brad Keselowski wins Cup pole at New Hampshire

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Brad Keselowski scored his first Cup pole since 2017, taking the top spot Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Keselowski topped the field with a lap of 136.384 mph. This is Keselowski’s 15th career Cup pole and first since Michigan in August 2017, a span of 68 races.

Keselowski’s run denied Toyota its first pole of the season. Keselowski will be joined on the front row by Kyle Busch (136.311 mph).

MORE: Cup qualifying results

Kurt Busch, who won last weekend at Kentucky, will start third after a lap of 136.238 mph. Erik Jones qualified fourth with a lap of 136.189 mph.

Jones’ performance is part of a promising week for him. He stated Friday that he is “close” to signing an extension with Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones’ contract expires after this season.

Ryan Blaney completed the top five with a lap of 136.116 mph. Martin Truex Jr. qualified sixth at 136.082 mph, and Matt DiBenedetto qualified a career-best seventh at 135.990 mph. DiBenedetto’s previous best Cup start was ninth in this year’s Daytona 500.

Alex Bowman had a driveshaft failure on his qualifying run and did not complete a lap. He will start at the rear of the field.

“Just a big boom going down the front straightaway and smoke and oil everywhere,” Bowman told NBCSN.

Bowman will go to a backup car.

Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman also will start at the rear of the field because they both went to backup cars after separate incidents late in Friday’s only Cup practice session.

Andy Seuss (qualified 35th) and Austin Theriault (36th) both will be making their Cup debut Sunday.

Daniel Hemric qualified 19th. HIs car failed inspection twice before qualifying and a crew member was ejected.

 

Erik Jones ‘close’ to re-signing after meeting with Joe Gibbs this week

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LOUDON, N.H. – After meeting with team owner Joe Gibbs this week, Erik Jones believes he finally is “close” to signing an extension with the team after a few months of negotiations.

“We’ve had some good meetings, positive meetings, so we’re moving in the right direction,” Jones said during Friday afternoon’s qualifying session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I’d love to get it done here soon. We’ve had good meetings between my guys and JGR. I’ve had good meetings with Coach talking about it and moving forward. I know I keep saying it, but I feel like we’re pretty close to getting it done.”

The uncertainty for the 2020 season seemingly has been no distraction in 2019 for Jones, who believes he is close to ending a yearlong winless streak. He has notched six top 10s in the past nine races to move into the 16th and final provisional spot for the playoffs with seven races remaining in the regular season.

The Byron, Michigan, native said he told Gibbs “I want to get (the extension) done. We both want to get it done and move forward and stop worrying about it and stop focusing on it, but we’re close. Hopefully here soon.”

An extension for Jones would mean JGR has a full lineup of four drivers signed for 2020 and shift the focus to what is next for Xfinity driver Christopher Bell, who is under contract to JGR next season.

“I think you know as much as I do,” Bell said Friday morning when asked about what series he will race next year. “Actually, you probably know a little bit more than I do. Ultimately, it’s not up to me. I can’t make the decisions, so I’m just along for the ride.”

Bell indicated his desire to move to Cup last season, and a Leavine Family Racing Toyota could be an option if JGR wants to farm him out for 2020 in NASCAR’s premier series.

“I learned early on in my career that a race car driver is only as good as the equipment,” Bell said. “I definitely want to make sure that I’m in equipment that can win.”

Jeffrey Earnhardt releases his remaining races for 2019

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Jeffrey Earnhardt announced his schedule for the rest of the season Friday.

He is scheduled to run six Xfinity races and one Cup race the rest of this season.

His Xfinity races will be Mid-Ohio (Aug. 10), Bristol (Aug. 16), Road America (Aug. 24), Darlington (Aug. 31), ISM Raceway (Nov. 9) and Miami (Nov. 16). He’ll drive the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity car at Mid-Ohio, Road America, ISM Raceway and Miami. He’ll drive the No. 81 Xtreme Concepts Racing car at Bristol and Darlington.

He’ll also drive the No. 81 Xtreme Concepts Racing Cup car at Talladega on Oct. 13.