TALLADEGA, Ala. — A group decision for all of the cars powered by Earnhardt Childress engines to work together at Talladega Superspeedway proved the correct call in NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying format.
Richard Childress Racing drivers and their affiliates swept the first three rows on the starting grid for Sunday’s race, with the pole going to Brian Scott, who will lead the field to the green flag in just his fifth career Sprint Cup Series start.
“Who would have thought that, huh?” Scott asked after Saturday’s qualifying session.
Cars with ECR engines took six of the 12 spots in the third and final round of knockout qualifying, and they all waited patiently on pit road for someone to make a move. It came with roughly 2 minutes, 20 seconds remaining in the 5-minute session, when all 12 drivers made their way onto the track.
Tony Stewart posted the fastest lap as he worked with the other three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers, and as the clock neared the final buzzer, it appeared the three-time NASCAR champion had the pole locked up.
Then came the ECR pack of cars, with Ryan Newman leading, Scott somewhere in the middle and Paul Menard bringing up the rear. Team owner Childress had designated Newman as the driver to decide when the pack should go, and Menard was charged with pushing them along.
Just as time expired, the entire group shot past Stewart’s speed and moved to the top of the leaderboard.
It was Scott on the pole, followed by Menard and then AJ Allmendinger, an RCR-affiliated driver.
Casey Mears, also an affiliated driver, qualified fourth and was followed by Daytona 500 pole-sitter Austin Dillon and Newman.
“It was just a great plan by RCR, getting all the RCR alliance cars working together,” Allmendinger said. “We worked on that (in practice) and felt like we all had great speed. Ryan was the guinea pig for all of us and timed it right, and that last session, it was just basically who was going to wait the longest to go out there.”
It was the first time NASCAR has used its new knockout format on a restrictor-plate track in the Sprint Cup Series. Daytona 500 qualifying in February was done with traditional single-car runs.
“The qualifying format, I think there are good tracks for it and bad tracks for it, and this is definitely a great track for it,” Menard said. “We had a plan and we tried to stick to the plan as best we could. Ryan, we put the burden on him to decide when to go and where to go, and the rest of us held it in line. ECR top-six and RCR cars all up there is pretty exciting.”
Now Scott gets to show what he’s made of on one of NASCAR’s fastest tracks. A Nationwide Series regular, he’s got three previous starts this season and finished 25th in the Daytona 500.
“I’ve got that dreaded yellow (rookie) stripe on the bumper, and that’s going to make people run away from me like the plague,” Scott said of finding drafting partners on Sunday.
Stewart wound up 12th in the final session after it appeared he had the pole locked up. SHR put all four of its cars in the final round, and Danica Patrick earned the highest starting spot at seventh.
Joey Logano, meanwhile, failed to advance into the final round of qualifying for the first time this season. He’d made it through all three rounds in eight previous sessions. He qualified 16th.
“It’s not by a good car or not, it’s just by strategy,” Logano said. “We put a lot of work and effort into keeping that streak alive. It’s unfortunate.”