After the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., ended with zero drivers setting times in the final shootout session, it was abundantly clear that the series had to make adjustments to its controversial group qualifying format to avoid total chaos.
NASCAR announced a few changes ahead of this weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, but drivers didn’t make it through a single session before new problems cropped up.
Starting this weekend, NASCAR mandated that drivers are to wait in “staging” lines along pit road to leave a center open lane. In theory, drivers are meant to pull into the center lane and progress to the track unimpeded. According to the rule announcement shared by NASCAR.com, once a driver pulls out of a staging line, they are required to continue onto the track.
“Starting at Texas, vehicles not immediately making a qualifying attempt will be staged in a track-specific area designated by NASCAR. Once a vehicle leaves the area, it must continue directly onto the race track — it cannot stop at the end of pit road and wait in a gamesmanship play.”
In practice, this means that pulling out of a staging line is a leap of faith. Due to the importance of the draft, no driver wants to be the first car in line, and if you pull out on track before everyone else, you could be at a major disadvantage. In Friday’s qualifying session, we saw several drivers pull out of line into the center lane, only to duck back into the staging area when they realized that no other cars were headed on track.
This caused a major issue for Clint Bowyer in the opening session.
Ryan Newman left the staging area and rolled down the center lane to put up his first time in the opening session, and when Bowyer saw Newman pass, he quickly pulled out of line to follow. Newman immediately stopped, however, and attempted to force his way back into the staging area. Bowyer was forced to stop, but was able to squeeze around Newman and continue with qualifying.
Bowyer’s lap was ruined when Alex Bowman smacked the wall, however, and he ended up just missing the cutoff to make the second session. Newman made it through to the next round, even though he seemed to blatantly break the new rule and impede another driver in the center lane.
Bowyer vented in an interview with Jamie Little, calling the outcome an “epic failure.”
Jamie Little: “What did NASCAR say?”
Clint Bowyer: “Who the hell knows? They can say whatever they want to say. I mean the lesson was supposed to be leaned in California when we made ourselves look like idiots out there. Unfortunately, we’re sitting here again in the same situation. Then you’re reading through the rule book – you’re literally reading the rule book to try to figure out the regulations they put in place for qualifying…..
This is stupid. Did that look like clogging the middle to you? I damn near had to back up to go. That’s not clogging the middle, apparently….. [It] says really clearly, in lawyer’s terms, how you can’t clog the middle. And I’ll be damned if the first time it clogs the middle, they don’t call it. ‘Discretionary.'”