SAN FRANCISCO -- NASCAR's new qualifying procedure makes its road course debut Saturday at Sonoma Raceway, giving drivers more than one chance to turn a fast lap. But with several drivers on the course at the same time, it could also cause some tempers to flare.
Under Sprint Cup's new procedures for short tracks and road courses, qualifying for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 consists of two elimination rounds. The first elimination round will be 30 minutes and include all cars. The 12 cars that post the fastest single lap will advance to the final round.
The final qualifying round will be 10 minutes and the fastest single lap time will determine positions 1-12. Formerly, each driver competed in one round and drove one lap. The driver with the fastest lap got the pole position.
The problem with the new procedure may come when some drivers who are just warming up are on the track at the same time as other drivers trying to put together as fast a lap as possible. Considering the Sonoma track is relatively narrow compared with some other road courses, there figures to be some traffic.
"Especially on a road course, because it's so far to coast back around to keep your engine temperature down, you're definitely going to have guys passing you. You just have to make sure you time it right," driver Brian Vickers said Thursday at a media luncheon. "You time it wrong, someone's going to be pissed. That's just part of it."
Because of the technical nature of the course, where one mistake in qualifying can prove costly, Vickers and other drivers are glad to have more than one opportunity to put together a fast lap time. But because teams will likely need to change tires more than once, and let their engines cool between qualifying attempts, the amount of laps a driver can turn will still be limited.
"I don't think anyone knows exactly how it's going to play out," driver Brad Keselowski said. "I expect it to be a lot of fun this weekend, and certainly an improvement where we were in years past."
Perhaps qualifying isn't quite as vital to success as it has been in past years, as only three of the last eight race winners have started inside the top 10.
According to Vickers, though, there aren't many things in terms of the car's setup that the team can carry over to this year. He points to the new ride-height rule, which sets how high a car can be off the ground and does away with the pre- and post-race front height rules and inspections.
"Are there things that we learned from that? Yes. Maybe concepts we learned from last year," said Vickers, who is 18th in the Cup standings. "But because of the new ride-height rules, everything has changed."
At Sonoma Raceway
Saturday's qualifying: NASCAR Sprint Cup series qualifying, 10:30 a.m., Fox Sports 1
Sunday's Sprint Cup race: Toyota/Save Mart 350, noon, TNT