Qualifying format still similar indicator of race results

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While Denny Hamlin won the pole Friday for the Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, he wouldn’t necessarily use that as a prediction of success for Sunday.

It never has been that way in Sprint Cup racing, and even with the change in format from single-car qualifying to group qualifying, it’s not like that has meant drivers will succeed on race day.

Through the first 13 races, drivers have won from the pole twice — just one fewer than polesitters through the first 13 races last year. In the 11 races where they have had group qualifying this year, five winners have started in the top-10 — at this time last year, there had been 10 single-car qualifying events and six winners had started in the top-10.

So while everyone now qualifies under the same conditions, unlike single-car qualifying, where a small change in temperature could give a driver an advantage, it still appears that those who have mastered the qualifying system don’t necessarily master the race.

“When you have some pit strategy that can leapfrog you past all those cars it makes things a lot easier,” Hamlin said about the chances of those deep in the field at Pocono. “You definitely can’t count anyone out.

“As long as they have a fast car, and get it right on Saturday, typically it makes your job a little harder on Sunday and they need cautions to fall their way here and there to find strategy that will put them up front at some point.”

Brad Keselowski has an average starting spot at non-restrictor-plate tracks of 2.1 while he has an average finish of 13th.

“We have been executing very well on qualifying day,” Keselowski said. “We have to keep that up. It has been great. We need to do that in race trim as well. You have to execute in race trim and we haven’t been exactly where we want to be there.

“Qualifying well is a good start to the weekend but there is a lot more to it with racing. We have to carry that over.”

Winning the pole has meant a little more. In the 11 group-qualifying races, seven times has the pole-sitter finished in the top-five and nine times in the top-10. Last year in the first 10 races of single-car qualifying, pole-sitters finished in the top-five five times, and the top-10 six times.

Among the 55 top-five starters in races with group qualifying this year, 16 have finished in the top-five. At this point last year with 10 single-car qualifying events, 14 top-five starters finished in the top-five. But a top-10 start last year seemed to mean more. Looking at top-10 starters this year, 42 have finished in the top-10, while a year ago 47 finished in the top-10 (with one fewer race under consideration).

So while it would make sense that qualifying no longer comes down to one lap but instead to more consistency and a little bit of strategy in qualifying and qualifying setups, it still doesn’t mean that translates into consistent fast laps, good track position and a solid result.

“Qualifying really only sets track position for the start of the race,” Keselowski said. “From there, it is who can have the best restarts, where it is an opportunity for track position and so forth (to) be manipulated, and then who can do the best on pit road where the strategy and actual pit stops themselves come into play.

"Track position is important but qualifying is only one of probably three or four factors that can accumulate in the race.”

HARVICK HOT ON RACE EVE

Kevin Harvick paced both Sprint Cup Series practices Saturday at Pocono Raceway as teams prepared for the Pocono 400.

Harvick posted a top single-lap speed of 177.291 mph in the first session and then 175.606 in the final 50-minute practice on the 2.5-mile, triangle-shaped circuit.

It wasn’t just Harvick who was fast for Stewart-Haas Racing in the final practice as Kurt Busch (175.545) was second on the chart and Tony Stewart (175.370) was fourth. Jimmie Johnson, whose Hendrick Motorsports organization also leases engines to SHR, was third on the chart at 175.452 mph.

Ryan Newman was fifth in the final practice, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and race polesitter Denny Hamlin.

Harvick did miss part of the final practice with a transmission fluid leak, according to the Fox Sports 1 telecast. Aric Almirola had a full transmission issue and will have to replace it for the race Sunday. He won't have to go to the rear of the field as teams are allowed to change broken transmissions at Pocono, one of the rare tracks where the drivers actually shift.

Only four drivers went 10 consecutive laps in the final session, with Earnhardt posting the fastest speed among them, as they prepared to race 160 laps Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

LARSON WINS ARCA RACE

Sprint Cup Series rookie Kyle Larson, who has never competed at Pocono Raceway, looked to gain some experience by competing in the Auto Racing Club of America event at the track Saturday.

Larson at least got experience in how to make a winning move, as he led 68 of the 80 laps in winning the Pocono 200. Larson lost the lead on a late restart but was able to pass Mason Mitchell with a little more than three laps remaining.

Tenth in the Cup standings for Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson competed in the event in a series that typically features old Cup cars, with races held at a wide variety of racetracks, from dirt tracks to superspeedways. With the Nationwide Series off this weekend, his Turner Scott Motorsports crew went to Pocono to field the ARCA car for him.

“I definitely learned some things in traffic there,” Larson told Fox Sports 1 following the win.

That is about all Larson could learn. While the ARCA rules don’t allow for shifting, the NASCAR rules do — something Larson has little experience in doing, which is his main concern going into the Pocono 400 on Sunday.

The Ganassi team actually had him drive a stick shift street car throughout the week to get him prepared.

“It seems like I’m probably the worst shifter of all time in a stock car,” Larson said Friday. “It’s been kind of embarrassing missing a lot of shifts.

“I have to drive a stick shift around town; the team’s making me. … It was funny at first. Now it’s not very funny.”

Contributor: Bob Pockrass

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Sporting News editorial team