This Week in Auto Racing Feb. 28 - March 2

Sprint Cup Series

The Profit on CNBC 500 - Phoenix International Raceway - Avondale, Ariz.

This weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway will mark the debut of NASCAR's new knockout-style of qualifying for the Sprint Cup Series.

The revised qualifying format was used for the first time in the Nationwide Series last week at Daytona International Speedway. Though qualifying was shortened due to rain, 18-year-old Dylan Kwasniewski won the pole for the Nationwide season-opener. Qualifying for the Camping World Truck Series event at Daytona was washed out. Trucks will use the format for the first time next month at Martinsville Speedway.

NASCAR is using knockout qualifying for all points-paying races in Sprint Cup with the exception of last week's Daytona 500, in which the starting lineup was determined by time trials and the twin qualifying races (Budweiser Duel).

Since Phoenix is a 1-mile racetrack, there will be two rounds in qualifying. Tracks measuring 1.25 miles or more in length feature three rounds.

The first round of qualifying at Phoenix is 30 minutes in duration and includes all entries. The 12 cars that record the fastest single lap time will advance to the second round. The remaining field will be determined by lap times in descending order during the opening segment.

Starting positions 1 through 12 for the race are decided in the final qualifying round, which is 10 minutes in length.

"Thirty minutes for everybody to be able to get out there and get a clean lap is enough time," said Kyle Busch, who drives the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in Sprint Cup. "Realistically, you're not going to make multiple runs in one session. I just don't see that happening with the way tires are. Maybe Phoenix or Kansas or Michigan, places like that where the pavement is still new and laps on tires actually make you go faster, I think you'll see it at those places."

The weather could be a factor for Friday's Sprint Cup qualifying at Phoenix. According to the National Weather Service, it will be cloudy with a 30 percent chance of rain in the area during the afternoon and then rising to 90 percent by nighttime. Saturday's forecast calls for 100 percent chance of showers. The Nationwide Series has its qualifying and race here on that day.

Drivers and teams aren't quite sure what to expect with this qualifying format. Some think it will be more challenging at the smaller tracks, such as Phoenix, compared to the bigger ones like Daytona, which will feature the format when the series returns there in July.

"This is going to be huge," said Greg Biffle, who is behind the wheel of the No. 16 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. "There's going to be 15 of us sitting on pit road, waiting for that cloud to come over. Twelve of us are going to try to drive off of pit road at the same time. There's probably going to be beating and banging. You're going to be sliding off of the apron. One guy is going to spin out. The caution will come out. The motor is hot, and the tires are hot. The guy who just decided to wait for the next clouds is going to be the one who has the fastest lap."

Danica Patrick, now in her second full Sprint Cup season, competed in Nationwide qualifying at Daytona. After the session concluded, Patrick, who qualified third, expressed her concerns about the new format.

"I think there are going to be sometimes that it's going to be a total disaster, like when we go to short tracks," she said. "I just can't imagine what it's going to be like...When you go to places like Bristol, Martinsville, and shoot, even Phoenix, it's just going to be a really big challenge."

Teams will be able to adjust on their cars during their qualifying rounds and during the breaks (5 minutes) of their qualifying rounds. Only one crew member from each team will be allowed over the wall during the round when the track is "hot." That person must wear a helmet and can perform the adjustments, which are tape, tire pressures and wedge. During the breaks when the track is "cold," three crew members will be permitted over the wall to perform those duties. Repairs other than tape, tire pressures and wedge cannot be made on pit road.

Furthermore, drivers must follow the same pit entry, pit exit and pit road speed requirements set forth by NASCAR for the event.

Cars will be lined up on pit road for the first round of qualifying based on a random draw, and cars advancing to the next round will return to their respective pit stalls.

Top lap speeds reset after each round. If a driver wants to advance then he or she must continue to go faster. Like qualifying for Formula One and IndyCar Series road/street course races, once the clock strikes zero in a qualifying round, the car can pass the start/finish line one time.

"The way I'm viewing it, it's very, very similar to Formula One, and you have your knockout sessions where the faster groups transfer and then you get to that elite group," said Kurt Busch, who is in his first season as driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing. "You've just got to play it straightforward, whatever the game plan is going in, you keep it clear and crisp, and you're not out there to play any monkey business with the other cars."

Kurt Busch thinks the biggest key in this new qualifying format is tire management.

"A set of sticker tires versus scuffs can be three-tenths (of a second), so three-tenths on the stopwatch in normal qualifying is first to 25th," he said. "It'll be interesting to see how that is balanced out. You can't cool the cars down during qualifying runs, so we'll have to let the rough edges drag in the beginning of qualifying sessions to see what patterns develop. At places like Phoenix, the tires don't drop off very quickly."

Forty-six teams are on the entry list for The Profit on CNBC 500.

Nationwide Series

Blue Jeans Go Green 200 - Phoenix International Raceway - Avondale, Ariz.

Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing have figured out Phoenix International Raceway very well in Nationwide Series competition over the years.

This weekend, Busch will attempt to win his third consecutive Nationwide race at Phoenix, while Joe Gibbs Racing will go for its fourth straight victory in the series there.

Busch drove the No. 54 Toyota for JGR in 26 Nationwide races during the 2013 season. He scored a series-season-high 12 wins, including victories in both events at Phoenix.

In last year's spring race here, Busch started on the pole and led the first 40 laps before he overshot his pit stall and then received a pit-road speeding penalty during the first round of stops. He dropped to 22nd in the field but quickly rebounded, as he reclaimed the top spot on lap 89 and then dominated from there. Busch ended an 18-month winless streak in the series. He drove for his own Nationwide team during the 2012 season before returning to JGR for the start of the '13 season.

When the series most recently competed at Phoenix last November, Busch also started on the pole and led 169 of 200 laps.

Busch holds the record for most career Nationwide race wins with 63. He has six victories in the series at Phoenix, which is more than any other driver.

"I can't say enough about Joe Gibbs Racing -- all these guys on this team," Busch said. "They do a phenomenal job, and it pays off. We saw it last year. We've seen it in the Nationwide Series for years at JGR."

Joey Logano won the fall race at Phoenix in 2012, driving for JGR at the time. Logano started on the pole and put on a dominating performance in that event as well, leading 168 of 204 laps.

Busch is scheduled to drive the No. 54 car in 26 Nationwide races again this season, while Sam Hornish Jr. will be behind the wheel of it in the remaining seven events. Busch finished fourth in last Saturday's season-opener at Daytona. He led a race-high 44 laps.

"It's fun to go out there and win in the Nationwide Series," Busch said. "Hopefully, we can get it done again early, to set the tone for the rest of the year. Last week's Daytona race went good. Wish I could have gotten it right out of the gate, but look forward to seeing if we can repeat [at Phoenix]. I think we'll have the car to do it."

Thirty-nine teams are on the entry list for the Blue Jeans Go Green 200.

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