Qualifying teaser bodes well for Dega


TALLADEGA, Ala. -- If Saturday's knockout qualifying was the preview it appeared to be, then Sunday's Aaron's 499 will be as wild, weird and favorable to underdogs as -- well -- classic Talladega races are supposed to be.

There was no "big one," as drivers had feared, in the most anticipated qualifying session of the year under NASCAR's new format. A big wreck would have been but an interruption to three rounds, especially the first, that were rife with drafting, darting and scrambling, just as purists love on restrictor-plate tracks.

Brad Keselowski summed up the day beautifully, even though he didn't make it to the final session.

"We knew it was going to be crazy, but I think this is kind of perfect," Keselowski said. "Just the right amount of craziness."

Brian Scott, a Nationwide Series regular entering only his fifth Cup race, came out of nowhere, name-wise, to snatch the pole in the final seconds of the third round.

Scott was the beneficiary by chance of a master strategy of the organization that now calls itself the "RCR alliance" -- Richard Childress Racing and affiliated smaller teams.

Alliance cars swept the first six starting positions, with Paul Menard second and AJ Allmendinger third, followed by Casey Mears, Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman. All six cars were built at the RCR complex in Welcome, North Carolina, and all six engines came from the Childress plant.

Danica Patrick, seventh, was the highest-qualifying non-alliance driver.

The best of the weirdness was that Scott, surprised that he was on the pole, really turned out to be the most experienced driver at this business of knockout qualifying in groups on plate tracks.

"It's really rare that I can come in here and say I actually have more experience than a Cup guy," Scott said before hurrying to his car to compete in Saturday's Nationwide race here.

But, "In this group qualifying on superspeedways [Saturday's session was the first ever in Cup for Talladega or Daytona], I feel like I have more experience than the Cup guys," Scott said.

"We did it in the Nationwide Series for one session at Daytona, and then we did it in the Nationwide Series for all three sessions yesterday."

So Saturday, "I felt like I knew how it was going to work. I knew that when we started the last session it was going to be a waiting game, and whoever got impatient first or panicked first was going to head out, and then it was going to be game on, and you were going to get one or two laps" at the very end.

Sure enough, Cup veteran Menard passed his alliance-mate on the next-to-last lap, because "I didn't think we had enough time to make an additional lap," Menard said.

But Scott's experience in this format told him there'd be time for one more, and he got in the best lap as the clock ran out, at 198.290 mph.

Menard happily would take both the outside front row and the excitement that got him there. "This qualifying format -- I think there's good tracks for it and bad tracks for it," Menard said. "And this is definitely a great track for it. I thought it added a lot of excitement."

The method was bypassed for the Daytona 500 in February because of the traditional twin qualifying races there. But Saturday's show begged the question whether NASCAR should have shown off the new format in its showcase race, its season opener.

As anticipated, the first 10 minutes of Saturday's first round were the best and wildest, with several big drafting packs on the track, producing lap speeds of 200-plus mph.

By the end, that first session didn't count much as far as qualifying, but it may well have been the real preview of Sunday's race.

Less than eight minutes into the frolic, Kyle Busch popped a lap at 200.574 mph, closely followed by Joey Logano at 200.171 and Jimmie Johnson at 199.912.

That was a throwback to the real Talladega -- the one that was accurately billed as the world's fastest track before restrictor plates were added, to stifle the engines and slow down the cars for safety's sake, in 1988.

But none of the fastest group from the first session made it to the third. Logano will start 16th, Busch 19th and Johnson 20th on Sunday. So there'll be the usual scramble of fast cars from mid-pack toward the front.

Logano, before Saturday, had been the only Cup driver to have made it through all rounds of all qualifying sessions all season.

"It's kind of a bummer," Logano said. "I would have liked to have kept that streak going, but I knew this was going to be the wild-card event."

The only prominent naysayer about the format here was Dale Earnhardt Jr., the reigning Daytona 500 champion, who'd said coming in that he wasn't going to take a lot of risks under this wild, new format.

Earnhardt got out of it what he put into it: He'll start 30th, but "we're not too worried about it," he said.

"It wasn't a whole lot of fun, to be honest with you," Earnhardt said. "I'd like to do some heat races or something, maybe. That would be a little bit better than this."

For just about everybody else, Saturday was a blast that bodes well for more of the same Sunday.