Fontana, Calif. — Austin Dillon won the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series race in Auto Club Speedway on Friday after no drivers completed a lap in the final round of qualifying.
Dillon got his fourth career pole essentially by default after a bizarre scene that ended with fans booing the drivers when they all waited too long to start their last laps.
“I have seen it in other sports, but never seen it in ours,” Clint Bowyer said. “We just got booed, and it is disappointing.”
With all 12 final-round drivers determined to go out as late as possible in a drafting group, every car idled near the front of the pit road in a Southern California-style traffic jam from the start of the five-minute final session until roughly 44 seconds remained.
Everybody blew the timing, as it turned out: The cars had barely exited Turn 4 when time ran out, which meant none of the final laps counted. Dillon got the pole for turning the fastest lap in the previous round in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller called it “making a mockery out of the qualifying process,” but most of the drivers said they used the strategy that’s necessary to compete under the new racing rules package.
“Don’t hate the player,” said Kyle Busch, who will start fourth Sunday. “Hate the game.”
Both Miller and the drivers agreed the qualifying rules must be altered to lessen the importance of trying to be last on the track. Miller expects changes to be made within two weeks.
The teams’ decision to play an elaborate game of chicken on pit road in qualifying was caused by the importance of drafting, which essentially is the only way to post the fastest lap on longer tracks this season. NASCAR’s new rules package minimizes the differences between the teams, which makes drafting almost the only advantage available in single laps.
“If there’s 12 cars, you want to be the 11th or 12th in line,” Denny Hamlin said. “Being second is worse than being third. Being third is worse than being fourth, and on down the line. It’s really just a domino effect. It’s tough today, but hopefully (the rules package) puts on a good show on Sunday. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t know that we really thought everything out for (qualifying), but I’m sure if you have any good suggestions, NASCAR will listen to them and make tweaks as needed.”
Dillon won each of the two rounds of qualifying in which drivers actually drove, and he thought his pole was deserved.
“I’m happy for our team to get the pole that no one ever ran a lap for in qualifying,” Dillon said with a laugh. “I think it’s pretty cool. It might be the last time you ever see that kind of qualifying.”
Kevin Harvick will start second Sunday, followed by Aric Almirola, Busch and Joey Logano.
But the extraordinary sight of race cars not racing, followed by fans booing a lap that didn’t count, was a profound disappointment to Miller.
“I saw what our fans don’t want,” Miller said. “Having the last 12 cars wait until they couldn’t get a time posted on the board and kind of making a mockery out of the qualifying is not what we expect for our fans. It’s a little bit on us in that we hoped things would go better than that. … We have a little bit of work to on our part to get a little bit better format so things like that can’t happen.”
Miller said changes to the qualifying rules are likely to be made before the circuit visits Texas Motor Speedway in two weeks, although he would prefer not to revert to single-car qualifying. Miller is “not quite sure what” NASCAR will do, but a change likely won’t be necessary for the short track at Martinsville next week, since drafting isn’t as important there.
“We all knew it was coming,” Jimmie Johnson said. “It was just a matter of time before this situation happened. NASCAR, unfortunately, is in a tough box with this rules package and how we qualify. I know we’re sensitive to not have single-car qualifying because at a lot of tracks, it would be really boring, and maybe @ this track we need to rethink it, and maybe single-car is the way to go about it so the fans get to see each car race for the pole.”
Earlier, Ryan Newman’s crew chief, Todd Brewer, was ejected for the weekend after their car twice failed pre-qualifying inspection.