NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying took another public relations hit at Atlanta Motor Speedway Friday, when technical inspection backlogs prevented 13 drivers – including some of the top names in the sport -- from recording a single lap time.
Former series champions Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth were among those unable to take part in the opening round of group qualifying, after several teams experienced issues in the tech area and were forced to undergo a second inspection. Michael Annett, Mike Wallace, Matt DiBenedetto and Reed Sorenson missed Sunday’s race entirely, after failing to appear on the qualifying grid before the checkered flag flew.
NASCAR delayed the start of qualifying for 15 minutes Friday, before bowing to television and radio time constraints and throwing the green flag. Sadly, the delay was not nearly enough for every team to clear the inspection bay and make its way to the race track.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director Richard Buck insisted that teams had sufficient time to pass inspection Friday, pointing out that that the laser inspection bay was open for business throughout Thursday’s Sprint Cup Series test, as well. He said many teams attempted to push the envelope on rear camber last week, in an effort to increase mechanical grip.
Buck revealed that with 17 minutes remaining before the scheduled start of qualifying, every team had been through inspection at least once. A total of 20 teams failed their initial inspection, however, and were required to rework their cars and try again.
"Their job is to push it to the very limit," said Buck. "Our job is to treat everybody fairly and give everybody an opportunity to come through that inspection room. I think what you saw today, was everybody pushing the limits.
"We treat everyone the same," he said. "There were cars that came through two, and even… three times, so everybody got a fair shot at going through there in a timely manner."
Kenseth, however, placed at least part of the blame on NASCAR, saying the sanctioning body was “obviously (not) organized enough to get everybody through tech. We've got all the people up there to watch qualifying and they don't get to watch everybody qualify.
“It's kind of confusing and disappointing, for sure."
In the aftermath of Friday’s fiasco, NASCAR and its teams must work together to diagnose what went wrong and take decisive action to ensure it never happens again. In the aftermath of a Daytona qualifying session that featured more lollygagging than actual qualifying, the sport cannot allow another debacle to occur this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
As is usually the case in situations like this, everyone shares in the blame.
“There is something wrong with the system,” said Gordon Friday. “Or with the amount of time they allot to get through. There is no way this many good cars (and) talented people can't figure out how to get these cars through inspection. Yes, we are pushing limits, but there is something wrong here.”
Gordon is correct when he says NASCAR must allow more time for teams to complete pre-qualifying inspection. NASCAR dramatically reduced the number of officials in the Sprint Cup garage last season, relying more on technology and less on living, breathing human beings. With fewer hands on deck, the sanctioning body’s ability to react when things go wrong is severely diminished.
New rules create new issues, especially in the first few races of a season. With a new slate of technical standards in place for 2015, NASCAR could have anticipated an increase in early-season compliance issues, along with an increase in the number of “repeat visits” to the tech line.
NASCAR is not solely to blame, however.
Race teams continue to push the limits in pre-qualifying inspection, particularly in the area of rear camber. The 2014 season featured numerous tech-line clashes between NASCAR and crew chiefs who insist on living their lives in the gray area, skirting the boundaries of legality and leaving themselves no “wiggle room” in the critical hour before qualifying begins. In some cases, teams have even attempted to exploit the schedule, counting on officials to be overstressed, under the gun and less attentive to detail when time is short.
That is unfair, and it needs to stop.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams have all the equipment, personnel and knowledge necessary to build legal race cars that pass inspection, the first time around. In this era of high technology, there is no excuse for 20 teams – nearly half the field – to roll through tech with what amounts to an illegal race car. NASCAR also learned long ago that teams will push the technical envelope, then wait for the last possible moment to attempt pre-qualifying inspection.
Friday’s tech line crunch should not have come as a surprise to anyone.
Both NASCAR and its teams can do better. Rather than continuing to approach technical inspection as adversaries – playing “us against them” to the detriment of all involved – both sides need to compromise, soften their stance and learn to work together.
Gordon called Friday’s snafu “absolutely embarrassing” for the sport, adding that “the fans deserve an apology. They deserve better than this.”
On that point, there can be no argument. Changes must be made, if fans are expected to continue spending their hard-earned dollars on qualifying day.