NASCAR’s knockout-style qualifying format will make its Sprint Cup road-course debut tomorrow afternoon at Sonoma Raceway, and it has many in the paddock wondering about their strategy for it.
Among that group is Jamie McMurray and A.J. Allmendinger, who are also among the winless drivers that are searching for a win that can get them into the Chase.
McMurray won the pole for last year’s Sonoma race, but that involved a different format.
In 2013, NASCAR used a group qualifying format on road courses in which groups of five or six cars had five minutes of green flag time to set their fastest laps.
But this year, Sonoma will utilize the two-round version of the knockout format that took hold in Sprint Cup following this year’s Daytona 500.
For his part, McMurray expects to see most guys run one flyer and have that be their best for each round.
“When we look back to last year, it was about a second a lap slower your second time on the track, so I think it’s all about getting that perfect lap,” he said this morning before Cup practice got underway.
“It’s a little different now, because last year they started the [group] qualifying where you’d get to have multiple laps. But your best situation is to put the most tape on the car for one lap and have the air pressures up for just one lap and put it all on the line.
“Even though you have the option to run more, I really think the pole guy will do it with the most tape on and then, his first time by.”
As for Allmendinger, who many are keeping an eye on as a dark horse this weekend, he’s particularly concerned about the matter of running into slower cars that can ruin a potential pole run.
For the most part, Allmendinger feels that teams have done a good job this year working with each other to make sure that conflict doesn’t emerge.
But on Sonoma’s narrow circuit, the best intentions may not be enough.
“You can sit here on pit road and say ‘There’s nobody coming into Turn 11 for 10 seconds, roll out and you’ll have a clean lap,'” he said. “But by the time you get back to 11 and start your lap, how many cars have rolled out?
Indeed, in the first round of qualifying, getting a clean lap will likely be the most perilous challenge of all.
“The first group, you’re going to have a lot of cars that are on a cool-down lap or trying to get their tires in when somebody’s on a hot lap,” he said.
“It’s hard to hide around here. You can’t really hide and get out of the way, so I think that is what will be the most critical.”