NASCAR's 2019 game of strategy under its new handling package hit a whole other level Friday at Auto Club Speedway. The sport’s final round of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying ended in embarrassment... and, should we say, a lesson in punctuality. When the clock expired, not one of the 12 drivers eligible for the pole crossed the finish line in time to make a lap. Austin Dillon was awarded the pole position once officials were forced to revert to the previous round for qualifying times.
The sequence ended with fans booing and NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller claiming drivers "made a mockery of the qualifying process."
"I'm happy for my team to get the pole that no one ever ran a lap in qualifying," Dillon said. "That is pretty cool. That will go down in the record book some way as the only one. Or it might be the last time you ever see that qualifying again."
Dillon's probably right. Let's correct that; he needs to be right. NASCAR qualifying is in urgent need of a revamp and Friday was the red flag moment that should produce major changes.
The sport had the best of intentions in producing the current qualifying format, in use since 2014. Facing dwindling attendance and attention to Fridays at the racetrack, group qualifying was intended to inject excitement into setting the lineup. Qualifying consists of up to three rounds, depending on the racetrack, where all eligible drivers are allowed on track at once.
At first, the system gained praise; it's much better than the monotony of single-car, hot-lap qualifying. But the group system has also led to challenges. Drivers sometimes struggle to find space on the racetrack, as we saw with Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell's fight last weekend at ISM Raceway. You also have a system in which you can set a track record in round one and not end up with the pole position. Consistency is required to be on top of the charts in each round.
But the biggest problem in 2019 is the importance of the draft with NASCAR's new, lower-horsepower package on intermediate tracks. Drivers running wide open are now seeking extra ways to add speed; the best way you can do that in one-lap qualifying is drafting off someone else. To draft up to someone, you can’t be the car in front; that's what caused Friday’s unnecessary drama. Everyone was waiting for another driver to blink in order to race behind someone else on track.
"Don't hate the player," said Kyle Busch to assembled media Friday. "Hate the game."
NASCAR officials are appropriately aghast at the situation but hesitant to go back to single-car qualifying. I think they're going to have no choice. There's limited incentive to keep this group system anyway, needlessly expanding qualifying in a series where 36 cars are guaranteed starting spots on the grid no matter what. In fact, NASCAR hasn't had a full 40-car field since the season-opening Daytona 500.
So why extend qualifying out when everyone makes the field anyways? (And can win from pretty much anywhere on the starting grid, even in this era where track position is oh-so-important.) The 500 extra seats they'll sell on Fridays pale in comparison to the debacle that can sometimes ensue.
There's ways to spruce up the single-car system, too. Put a second car out on the track about half-a-lap behind the first; it'll shorten the session in this age of instant gratification. And why not offer bonuses for pole winners? Sure, they get an automatic spot in the Advance Auto Parts used-to-be-a-quality-exhibition, held a week before the season-opening Daytona 500. But what drivers are really after are those elusive playoff points. Perhaps give a 10-point playoff bonus to the driver who wins the most regular season poles; you could also give each individual pole three playoff points.
As we've seen, those extras matter and could make the difference in drivers advancing through the postseason. It'll create the extra effort and fan interest you don’t have when, well, not a single car makes a lap on the racetrack.
Whatever the solution, NASCAR has to find one. If nothing else, Fontana's follies made their qualifying problem too large to ignore.
Auto Club 400
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kyle Busch
199. That's where Busch sits after a weekend sweep at ISM Raceway leaves him one short of King Richard Petty for the wins record in NASCAR’s top three series. It’s an apples to oranges comparison, in one sense, as Petty's 200 victories all came at the sport’s highest level. Just 52 of Busch's victories have come in Cup while the other 147 have been split between NASCAR’s feeder series, Xfinity and Trucks.
But Petty heaped praise on Busch this week, calling him a "great driver" that could have competed in any era. And there's no denying the confidence those victories in lower series have given Busch through the years. Thus far in 2019, he's got a whopping five-for-eight winning percentage, including four-for-four in Xfinity and Trucks.
On the Cup level, Phoenix (ISM) marked Busch's first win but the speed has been there at every track on the circuit. He's the only driver with top-10 finishes in all four Cup races this season.
Who's at the Back: Bubba Wallace
One of the sport’s Most Popular Drivers is having a most unpopular start to the 2019 Cup Series season. Four races in, Wallace has yet to finish on the lead lap and hasn’t even run inside the top 20. An average finish of 28.2 won’t get it done for a driver still seeking sponsorship with his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team.
Typically, early season slumps don’t much matter in a NASCAR postseason system where a win gets you in. But not only is Wallace far from Victory Lane, he’s already 56 points behind the final playoff spot. It’s looking like a rough road ahead for him.
NASCAR announced its 2020 Hall of Fame nominees this week. Among those new to the list: three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, almost certainly set for induction in his first year of eligibility. Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard, Neil Bonnett, Daytona 500 winner Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal, and Red Vogt, a master mechanic from NASCAR's early days, round out the newbies on the 20-name list. A curious deletion this year? Dale Earnhardt's championship-winning crew chief, Kirk Shelmerdine, who's no longer under consideration. The list of 20 will be cut to five inductees later this year.
Ward Burton’s son is headed back to the Cup Series... at least for one race. Jeb Burton, who ran for 2015 Cup Series Rookie of the Year, will return at Martinsville in a one-race deal with Rick Ware Racing’s No. 52 team. Burton’s run just three Cup races since the start of 2016 but hopes a good run at Martinsville might spark a longer-term deal. Muzzy Bowfishing will sponsor the effort.
Former Cup Series driver Timmy Hill is going Truck Series racing. He’s joined with family in starting a part-time NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series team that will debut at Martinsville next weekend. The No. 56 Chevrolet will be shared between Timmy and younger brother Tyler as they seek sponsorship for a full-time effort in 2020.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cup driver through four races who would make the playoffs that didn’t in 2018: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He bumps out Austin Dillon, who sits 21st in the standings.
Laps led by three of Hendrick Motorsports' four teams (Jimmie Johnson, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott) combined through the first four races. Rookie William Byron has led 65 circuits but sits outside of playoff position with just two lead-lap finishes thus far.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Thus far, qualifying hasn’t been the strong suit of Martin Truex Jr. He starts a season-worst 27th for Sunday’s race with a setup that’s been ineffective on short runs. But last year’s Fontana winner has been a master thus far at getting the most speed out of his car in the final stage. He already has two runner-up finishes this season and another top 5 at Fontana would come with bonus position differential points in most formats.
Kevin Harvick has two runner-up finishes in his last four Auto Club Speedway starts. A second-place qualifying effort has him thinking one better Sunday after his team learned a hard lesson a week ago at ISM Raceway. Pitting for fresh tires after the race’s final caution, a long green-flag run to the finish trapped him in traffic. A top-5 car in speed wound up ninth, a mistake Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers shouldn’t make twice.
Some might say to pick Kyle Busch here. But what if win 200 comes earlier in the weekend at Auto Club Speedway? He might have already peaked come Sunday. It’s a bit more of a boom-or-bust pick for fantasy purposes considering the outside pressure for tying the record.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has three top-20 finishes in his last four Fontana starts. That includes a fifth-place effort in 2017 and Roush Fenway Racing has recently been flashing that type of speed once again. Stenhouse is an inexpensive pick in a sea of mid-tier candidates and can rely on the notes of teammate Ryan Newman; Newman qualified a season-best seventh while Stenhouse is 12th.
How about Jimmie Johnson? It’s hard to think of the seven-time champion as a middle-tier candidate but lackluster 2018 results put him in this category. However, Johnson surprisingly led Friday’s Cup practice and three top-10 finishes (including a win) his last four times out at this track. He’s a good value pick with Hendrick Motorsports struggling as of late.
Paul Menard qualified a distant 25th with the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. But an alliance with Team Penske should have this team armed with better notes and quality speed come race day. Menard’s an intermediate track specialist and has run inside the top 5 here as recently as 2015.
Michael McDowell doesn’t have a great track record at Auto Club. His best finish was last year (26th) with the Front Row Motorsports team he races for now. But teammate David Ragan continues to qualify well and it’s possible some of that speed filters down. Remember, McDowell has a better shot at more bonuses after qualifying a disappointing 29th.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are tied at the top with 19/4 odds. Kyle Larson and Joey Logano sit behind them at 6/1.
What I Think
Last week, Kevin Harvick underperformed at ISM Raceway. This week? He’s set to overachieve in California, taking the win at Auto Club Speedway and securing his 2019 postseason spot.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.