IndyStar Motorsports Insider Jim Ayello details the news that the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race will move to July 4 weekend.
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INDIANAPOLIS – It’s not uncommon to see something happen for the first time whenever there’s a race at Indianapolis. NASCAR has tested condensed weekends from time to time over the past few seasons. These condensed weekends typically mean qualifications are moved to race morning and teams are given only one day of practice. For the first time Sunday, Brickyard 400 qualifying took place the morning of the race.
While this may increase the value of a ticket for some fans, it makes things a bit more challenging for the drivers and teams when it comes to finding the right balance of speed and handling.
Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was an impound race, meaning that teams were not allowed to make any adjustments to their cars after qualifying, until the race starts. Crew chiefs had a tough decision to make in regards to setting up their cars. They must decide if raw speed will win the race or if the ability to make moves in traffic will project them to the front.
Race winner Kevin Harvick was the 23rd car to qualify Sunday morning. Electing to qualify with their race setup, Harvick had no idea how the car would perform.
“It’s definitely nerve-wracking first thing in the morning to go out and run a lap wide open and never have done it before,” said Harvick after qualifying.
Despite not practicing a qualifying run during Saturday practice, Harvick said that it was helpful to have access to the data of his three teammates who practiced qualifying runs. That data was incorporated into his race setup.
Of his teammates, Clint Bowyer started second and finished fifth, Daniel Suarez started 20th and moved up to finish 11th and Aric Almirola started 10th but finished 14th.
Looking at the qualifying and race results, Harvick’s teammates had valuable information on how to not only be fast but also work well in traffic. This contributed to Harvick’s speed not just out front but also behind other cars.
Harvick didn’t have nearly as much of a challenge as his crew chief, Rodney Childers.
“You don’t have a lot of time between practices. Everything just blows by in a hurry,” Childers said after the race. “Then within a few hours you have to make all your adjustments on how you’re going to qualify and race but you haven’t even thought about the qualifying setup yet.”
Starting on the pole helped Harvick and his team figure out their car as the race progressed. An early caution on Lap 12 allowed for an opportunity to tweak the car so that it would run even better.
“We had to make race adjustments as soon as we came off the racetrack,” said Childers.
They had to hope that every change made to the car would help it run even faster. It was almost a scramble for the No. 4 team, but having the advantage of starting on pole made their race easier.
For other drivers, it looked as if these race adjustments were key for anyone wanting to move up through the field. Last year’s runner-up Denny Hamlin gained the most positions in the race. He started 33rd, but worked his way up to finish sixth. William Byron adjusted the car throughout the race. Byron started 29th, but slowly worked his way up to finish fourth.
The move of qualifying to race morning might have been a big challenge for the teams, but the overall racing product seems to have benefited because some faster cars started further back in the field and were able to slowly work their way to the front.
Whether qualifying will return to race day morning at next year’s Brickyard 400 remains to be seen, but it did not appear to hurt many teams. Seeing Hamlin and Byron’s marches to the front was a refreshing sight in a race where passing is typically difficult. The top 29 qualifiers were separated by less than a second, making for a very competitive field. Even though track position was key, seeing two drivers work their way to the front despite their low starting positions shows that drivers could indeed pass on the racetrack. If that trend is seen as favorable by NASCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, qualifying on race morning could be a permanent feature of the Brickyard 400.
A NASCAR representative said Monday that it was too soon to say whether the Brickyard 400 would qualify on race-day again; talks with NBC, IMS and NASCAR haven’t begun yet.