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.”

NASCAR’s weekend schedule for Auto Club Speedway

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NASCAR’s West Coast swing continues this weekend with a visit to the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Cup and Xfinity Series teams will be in action, with the weekend capped off by Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

For Friday, wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy skies, a high of 81 degrees and no chance of rain.

For the start of Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, the forecast is for sunny skies and a high of 70 degrees.

On Sunday, the forecast for the start of the Cup race is cloudy skies, a high of 54 and a 39% of rain.

Here’s the full weekend schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, Feb. 28

Noon – 10 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1 – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice (FS1)

4:05 – 4:55 – Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

5:02 – 5:27 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

5:35 – 6:25 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

Saturday, Feb. 29

10 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

11:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

1:05 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying; one car/single lap (FS1)

2:15 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief introductions

2:35 p.m. – Cup qualifying; one car/single lap (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

3:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

4 p.m. – Production Alliance Group 300; 150 laps/300 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 1

11:30 a.m. – Cup garage opens

1:30 p.m. – Driver-crew chief meeting

2:50 p.m. – Cup driver introductions

3:30 p.m. – Auto Club 400; 200 laps/400 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Myatt Snider: It’s ‘game on’ if conflict with Noah Gragson continues

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The spat between Xfinity Series drivers Myatt Snider and Noah Gragson may not necessarily be over.

The pair tangled in Sunday night’s Xfinity Series race in Las Vegas. Gragson made contact with Snider’s car, sending it into a spin.

Snider discussed the incident Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” and where things stand between the two drivers.

“It, to me, just seemed like some impatience on Noah’s part,” Snider said of the incident. “I had gotten into a rut and was trying to figure out how to make the car faster but at that point in time, I didn’t. So he was running me down and he actually had a run on me going to the frontstretch.

“So I was, ‘Okay, he’s going to go by me.’ Then I felt a little yoink in the left rear quarter and around I was going. It’s kind of unfortunate it had to go down that way, that’s not racing to me. But I’m a big believer in karma and what goes around, comes around. We’ll be performing at our best over these next couple of weeks and I’m not worried about it.”

Snider also told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he hasn’t texted or talked to Gragson since Sunday, but Snider said he’s ready if the spat continues.

“I’m the kind of guy that believes in racing people how you’re raced,” Snider said. “I’m not going to take any kind of stuff like that. If (Gragson) wants to send that kind of message early, then game on.”

On Tuesday, here’s how Gragson explained what happened on “Sirius Speedway” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It was just some hard racing between the two of us and we got into each other, so I think we both can look forward to the next couple of races and stay out of each other’s ways,” Gragson said. “I think we’re both at fault. It was a long race, none of us were going to give and we’re going to go on to California and run as good as possible and do as good as we can.”

Much has been made about the TV replays of Gragson and Snider meeting after the race to talk about the incident. Gragson tried to give Snider a fist bump only to have Snider walk away without fist bumping him.

“I told (Myatt) let’s play rock, paper, scissors,” Gragson quipped in part on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I went with rock and he still hasn’t gotten back to me if he wants scissors, paper or rock.”

Gragson won the season opener at Daytona and finished fourth at Las Vegas for JR Motorsports. Snider, who won the pole at Daytona, finished 33rd at Daytona and 16th at Las Vegas for Richard Childress Racing. Snider will race this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for RSS Racing.

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Ryan Newman gets standing ovation in visit to Roush Fenway Racing

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Exactly 10 months to the day when the country will celebrate Thanksgiving, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization gave thanks and a warm welcome to driver Ryan Newman, who visited the team’s shop Wednesday.

Newman, who was involved in a horrific crash coming to the finish line of the Daytona 500 just nine days earlier, received a standing ovation from his colleagues and posed for a number of photos.

While there is still no timetable for Newman’s return behind the wheel of his No. 6 RFR Ford Mustang — Ross Chastain is scheduled to drive the car until Newman comes back — Wednesday’s appearance was yet another positive move in that direction.

“Just a good day,” RFR president Steve Newmark tweeted about Newman’s visit.

Newman said in a prior statement he suffered an undisclosed head injury in the crash but did not suffer any broken bones or internal injuries.

Tuesday he took part in one of his favorite pastimes:

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Hendrick focused on Jimmie Johnson’s success, not successor

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Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski. Ryan Blaney. Erik Jones.

No, we’re not talking about this week’s fantasy racing picks, but those four drivers have been among drivers mentioned most often when it comes time for Hendrick Motorsports to name a replacement for Jimmie Johnson, who will retire after this season.

Yet even though filling Johnson’s spot is important, it’s not as much a priority right now as it is for the entire organization to learn more about the nuances of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, according to HMS vice president of competition Jeff Andrews.

“We don’t have a timetable for that, to be honest with you,” Andrews said of naming a replacement for Johnson on Wednesday “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our focus has been getting better race cars under Jimmie Johnson and getting better race cars for (crew chief) Cliff Daniels and his race team to work with on the weekend.

“The focus right now immediately for the 48 is to get a win, get that car in the playoffs, get multiple wins through the season and then get Jimmie Johnson to Phoenix at the end of the year to battle for that championship.”

Andrews admits the vibe around Hendrick Motorsports’ campus is markedly different this year, knowing it’s Johnson’s final season in the No. 48.

“I think the sense is pride here within Hendrick Motorsports, to just have been associated with someone like Jimmie,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “For those of us who have been here really throughout his career, we’re just incredibly proud that he chose to drive for Hendrick Motorsports throughout his whole career.

“But we’re also proud of all his accomplishments and what he’s done for this company. I think we would have an awful hard time of ever paying him back for all that. Our goal this year is giving him everything he needs for a multiple win season and to get to Phoenix. We owe him that at the least.”

The Hendrick organization has struggled in adapting to the new Chevrolet Camaro body style this year. In the season-opening Daytona 500, Chase Elliott (finished seventh) was the only HMS driver in the top 15.

Things were a bit better this past Sunday at Las Vegas. Johnson was the highest-finishing HMS driver (fifth), while Alex Bowman was 13th. But there was considerable sense of accomplishment overall for Chevrolet as a whole, with six of its Camaros in the top 10 (as opposed to only two Chevys in the top 10 at Daytona).

That leaves Andrews, the competition department at HMS and Chevrolet officials as a whole feeling optimistic as the series heads for the third race of the season this weekend at the two-mile track in Fontana, California.

“From a barometer perspective, we’re feeling good about where we’ve been,” Andrews said. “We haven’t had that finish, that win that we’re looking for, but certainly we’ve started off the year with some good speed in our cars.

“The one thing that all of our drivers were commenting on is we had more speed in our cars and just had a better platform in our cars and a better ability to run multiple lines on the racetrack, which is something we haven’t in recent years.”

Admittedly, it’s been a tough road for Hendrick drivers over the last three seasons. Since Johnson’s seventh Cup championship in 2016, no HMS driver has reached the Championship 4 round since.

Also during that time frame, only two drivers have finished in the top-10 overall in the last three seasons (Chase Elliott, fifth in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 10th in 2019; and Johnson, 10th in 2017).

These next five races, particularly the last two of that stretch at Homestead-Miami and Texas, will help give Andrews and his staff a better handle on where their adjustment to the Camaro goes from there.

“We know it’s a long season and have a long ways to go with this,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “We need to get through three or four more races.

“I think we’ve targeted as a company a better understanding of where we’re at after the Homestead/Texas timeframe to get some types of tracks and learn with this new car.

“Steep learning curve with the new car and we’ve got to act quick. We have just a year to work with this before we get to another generation of race cars. … We’re looking forward to going back to the track this weekend in Fontana and see where we go with it.”

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