NASCAR is using knockout qualifying for all points-paying races in Sprint Cup with the exception of last week's Daytona 500, in which the starting lineup was determined by time trials and the twin qualifying races (Budweiser Duel).
Since Phoenix is a 1-mile racetrack, there will be two rounds in qualifying. Tracks measuring 1.25 miles or more in length feature three rounds.
The first round of qualifying at Phoenix is 30 minutes in duration and includes all entries. The 12 cars that record the fastest single lap time will advance to the second round. The remaining field will be determined by lap times in descending order during the opening segment.
Starting positions 1 through 12 for the race are decided in the final qualifying round, which is 10 minutes in length.
"Thirty minutes for everybody to be able to get out there and get a clean lap is enough time," said Kyle Busch, who drives the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in Sprint Cup. "Realistically, you're not going to make multiple runs in one session. I just don't see that happening with the way tires are. Maybe Phoenix or Kansas or Michigan, places like that where the pavement is still new and laps on tires actually make you go faster, I think you'll see it at those places."
The weather could be a factor for Friday's Sprint Cup qualifying at Phoenix. According to the National Weather Service, it will be cloudy with a 30 percent chance of rain in the area during the afternoon and then rising to 90 percent by nighttime. Saturday's forecast calls for 100 percent chance of showers. The Nationwide Series has its qualifying and race here on that day.
Drivers and teams aren't quite sure what to expect with this qualifying format. Some think it will be more challenging at the smaller tracks, such as Phoenix, compared to the bigger ones like Daytona, which will feature the format when the series returns there in July.
"This is going to be huge," said Greg Biffle, who is behind the wheel of the No. 16 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. "There's going to be 15 of us sitting on pit road, waiting for that cloud to come over. Twelve of us are going to try to drive off of pit road at the same time. There's probably going to be beating and banging. You're going to be sliding off of the apron. One guy is going to spin out. The caution will come out. The motor is hot, and the tires are hot. The guy who just decided to wait for the next clouds is going to be the one who has the fastest lap."
Danica Patrick, now in her second full Sprint Cup season, competed in Nationwide qualifying at Daytona. After the session concluded, Patrick, who qualified third, expressed her concerns about the new format.
"I think there are going to be sometimes that it's going to be a total disaster, like when we go to short tracks," she said. "I just can't imagine what it's going to be like...When you go to places like Bristol, Martinsville, and shoot, even Phoenix, it's just going to be a really big challenge."
Teams will be able to adjust on their cars during their qualifying rounds and during the breaks (5 minutes) of their qualifying rounds. Only one crew member from each team will be allowed over the wall during the round when the track is "hot." That person must wear a helmet and can perform the adjustments, which are tape, tire pressures and wedge. During the breaks when the track is "cold," three crew members will be permitted over the wall to perform those duties. Repairs other than tape, tire pressures and wedge cannot be made on pit road.
Furthermore, drivers must follow the same pit entry, pit exit and pit road speed requirements set forth by NASCAR for the event.
Cars will be lined up on pit road for the first round of qualifying based on a random draw, and cars advancing to the next round will return to their respective pit stalls.
Top lap speeds reset after each round. If a driver wants to advance then he or she must continue to go faster. Like qualifying for Formula One and IndyCar Series road/street course races, once the clock strikes zero in a qualifying round, the car can pass the start/finish line one time.
"The way I'm viewing it, it's very, very similar to Formula One, and you have your knockout sessions where the faster groups transfer and then you get to that elite group," said Kurt Busch, who is in his first season as driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing. "You've just got to play it straightforward, whatever the game plan is going in, you keep it clear and crisp, and you're not out there to play any monkey business with the other cars."
Kurt Busch thinks the biggest key in this new qualifying format is tire management.
"A set of sticker tires versus scuffs can be three-tenths (of a second), so three-tenths on the stopwatch in normal qualifying is first to 25th," he said. "It'll be interesting to see how that is balanced out. You can't cool the cars down during qualifying runs, so we'll have to let the rough edges drag in the beginning of qualifying sessions to see what patterns develop. At places like Phoenix, the tires don't drop off very quickly."
Forty-six teams are on the entry list for The Profit on CNBC 500.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, March 2. Race: Daytona 500. Site: Phoenix International Raceway. Track: 1-mile oval. Start time: 3 p.m. ET. Laps: 312. Miles: 312 (500 kilometers). 2013 Winner: Carl Edwards. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.