The experiments continue. In qualification for the Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR employed a modified single-car system in which drivers were released in three-man groups 15 seconds apart. The intent was to speed up qualification this morning of the race.
An added benefit of this scheme was that it kept the track from changing as radically as it might if the duration of time trials was more than twice as long as the approximate 45 minutes this week. A late-session cloud cover also contributed to a burst of speed at the end of time trials.
If fans ever want a mid-week race, or the addition of any significant number of short track races, they should applaud the sanctioning body for thinking outside the box.
With the fastest time set all weekend, Kevin Harvick won the pole for this afternoon’s race. His two most recent Brickyard 400s began on the front row and ended in top-six results. Harvick has a current six-race streak of top-10 starts and he has been perfect in race trim as well with five previous top-10 finishes.
Paul Menard had the fastest time in Happy Hour practice. He proved that was no fluke when he crossed under the checkered flag as the only driver within one-tenth of a second to Harvick. In fact, if not for a loose condition exiting Turn 3, he likely would have eclipsed the No. 4.
Menard has been solid in race trim at this track with top-10s in two of his last three attempts, but he has not been particularly good in qualification. Menard’s only top-10 start at Indy came in 2012 with an eighth; he finished 14th. He was riding momentum that year after winning a fuel mileage race in 2011.
One of the Bubble Boys will line up on the inside of row two. Clint Bowyer tracked in the green (indicating he was faster than Harvick) for most of his lap before slipping .128 seconds behind the leader at the finish line. Good starting positions have been a great omen for Bowyer at Indy. His results have been uneven throughout his career on this track, but all four of this top-10 finishes began on one of the first five rows.
While qualification is incredibly important at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, drivers will get shuffled throughout the field as various strategies unfold: “I would think restarts are where you’re going to have to make your money,” Logano said before turning a lap of 185.193 mph that landed fourth on the grid. “You’re going to have to be aggressive and make those passes where you can. It gets very challenging to make passes after that.”
This is Logano’s fifth top-10 start in the last six Indy races. All but one of these ended in top-10 finishes. Last year he started fifth and finished 13th in the Brickyard 400.
One of the other Bubble Boys will start up front with Bowyer: Jimmie Johnson laid down the fifth-best lap to begin his quest to earn enough points to qualify for the playoffs. As impressive as that is, players do not want to lose sight of the fact that it is only the second time since 2013 that Johnson qualified near the front. He started fourth in 2017, but was involved in an accident and finished 27th.
This is only the third time this year that Johnson has started among the top five.
Kyle Busch was one of the first drivers to hit the track. His woes from the past three weeks actually benefited him at Indy because it allowed him to go out while the asphalt was coolest. He held the top spot through the first 20 drivers and then watched as the field slowly pushed him down the order to eighth. This is his fifth consecutive top-10 start.
Qualifying ninth, Ryan Blaney extended his streak of top-10 starts to three consecutive races. His best result on this track came last year when he crossed under the checkers 11th after starting ninth.
Denny Hamlin had to qualify his backup for the second time this season. After destroying his primary in a run back to the flag after final practice ended, he will start today’s race from the back of the pack with no more than a single fast lap on this car. Hamlin finished second earlier this year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in a backup.
Hamlin’s 33rd-best qualification speed snapped a current three-race streak of top-10 starts.
Another top driver who was remarkably bad in qualification was Martin Truex Jr. With a lap of 182.704 mph, he will start behind Ty Dillon and just ahead of rookie Matt Tifft. Truex has suffered problems and failed to finish his last two starts.
William Byron’s bid to win the pole for all four Crown Jewel events came up well short. He is going to have to come from 29th.
Alex Bowman has finished worse than he started in all three of his previous Indy starts. He will roll off the Brickyard 400 grid 13th, which is a career-best. Unfortunately, his odds of earning a top-15 are not good because his best-ever finish is 33rd.
Seven of the 40 drivers will make their first career start at Indy. Daniel Hemric was the best of these driver with an 11th-place effort, followed by Ryan Preece in 23rd, Tifft in 28th, NBC analyst Parker Kligerman in 32nd, Ryan Sieg in 36th (also making his first start of 2019), Garrett Smithley in 38th, and Josh Bilicki in 39th.