Cup stars driving into the unknown with new qualifying format

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Before practice got underway today at Phoenix International Raceway, multiple Sprint Cup stars were unable to come up with an answer on what they’d expect with this evening’s debut of NASCAR’s new knock-out qualifying format.

The multi-round structure of the format isn’t the only aspect causing them to ponder things, but there’s also the matter of having just one set of tires to use throughout qualifying and the roles that strategy and teammates could wind up having as well.

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon recognized the new format’s potential for boosting interest in qualifying, but admitted that “it’s the unknowns that we fear the most right now.”

“I think for that first session, it’s going to be about getting a clean lap,” he said. “The ability to have a lot of cars out there trying to make laps, it’s kind of going to be like practice making qualifying runs except for everybody is in qualifying trim…Coordination between the spotter and the driver and the crew of making that first clean run – I think really two or three laps seems to be best here with sticker tires and pressures up, but you’re definitely going to be able to make a second run if need be.

“The bigger challenge there comes with cooling. We have no way of cooling the car other than pulling the tape off and going out and driving around with no tape on, which I think that is going to be tough to pull off.”

As for Daytona 500 winner and points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., he tried to get himself down to brass tacks on the matter, declaring that his job was “to go out there, find a clean place on the race track and run the best lap you can run.”

“I don’t know exactly what [crew chief] Steve’s [Letarte] plan is, but we have a lot of time in between practice and qualifying to sort that out and get an idea of what the rumblings are in the garage,” he said. “You know people are talking and all kinds of information is moving around in that garage to try to capture. We will see what makes sense.”

As for Ryan Newman, he believes that the new format will transform qualifying into more of a team event.

“Ultimately, I think we’re still going to have a pole winner; now the team is more incorporated with the things that are going on and the adjustments that you make,” he said.

“The spotter has a job with respect to qualifying that he never had before. But I think it all adds up to a team qualifying event more so than just a driver versus a race track qualifying format.”

IndyCar teams with NASCAR on IMS road course doubleheader in 2021

IndyCar NASCAR doubleheader 2021
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The NTT IndyCar Series will be sharing Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the NASCAR Cup Series in a race weekend doubleheader for the second consecutive season, but both series will be on the road course in August 2021.

IMS announced Wednesday that IndyCar will hold an Aug. 14, 2021 race on its 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course. It’ll be a day before NASCAR’s premier series runs the same layout for the first time after the Brickyard 400 was contested on the 2.5-mile oval for the first time in 27 years.

This season’s rescheduling of the IndyCar GMR Grand Prix to July 4, 2019 (a day before the Brickyard 400) led to the first NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader weekend. The Xfinity Series also raced on the IMS road course for the first time July 4 after the IndyCar race ended.

INDYCAR AT IMS THIS WEEKEND: Harvest GP schedule, entry lists

IndyCar will be holding its second race weekend this year at the IMS road course Friday and Saturday with the Harvest GP.

“Our first NASCAR-INDYCAR weekend was a big success last July, with positive feedback from
our loyal fans who watched the races on NBC and from the drivers, teams and participants
involved,” IMS president Douglas Boles said in a statement. “The Xfinity Series’ debut on the IMS road course provided exactly the kind of thrilling action from the green to checkered flags that we anticipated, so we know the teams and drivers of the Cup Series will put on a great show as they turn left and right for the first time at IMS.

“We can’t wait to welcome back fans to see NASCAR and INDYCAR together during this
exciting weekend as we add another memorable chapter in the long, storied history of the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

It also will mark the first NASCAR Cup-IndyCar doubleheader with a crowd as fans weren’t permitted at IMS in July because of the novel coronvavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Over the course of Wednesday, NASCAR is releasing its 36-race slate for next season. IndyCar has yet to release its full 2021 schedule.