DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – David Gilliland might have summed up Daytona qualifying best.
“It’s uncontrolled chaos out there,” Gilliland said Friday after landing the pole in a rain-shortened and somewhat hairy session that set the field for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Gilliland’s top speed during a hectic, cat-and-mouse qualifying session was 199.322 mph, earning him his third Sprint Cup pole and first since landing the top spot for the 2007 Daytona 500. All three of his poles have been at restrictor-plate races, with the first one coming at Talladega in 2006.
“Front Row Motorsports, our strong point is definitely speedway racing,” said Gilliland, who finished third in the 2011 Daytona 500. “It is something that’s circled on our calendar from the start of the year. We put a lot of emphasis on it. The restrictor-plate tracks are good equalizers. David Ragan and I both have good enough cars to win, and that is an exciting feeling. It’s something we don’t have every week.”
The top 24 drivers Friday in the first knockout stage were supposed to advance to the next round, but rain prompted NASCAR to cancel the final two sessions.
Reed Sorenson qualified second, followed by Landon Cassill, Bobby Labonte and Jimmie Johnson. Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will attempt to become the sixth drive to sweep both annual races at NASCAR’s most famous track Saturday, was seventh.
All the talk during and after was about how the qualifying session shook out. It was the first time NASCAR’s new qualifying rules were used at Daytona, and it produced some hairy moments as groups of cars slowed to a crawl around the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway. The small packs – most of them formed by teammates – were hoping to pull behind bigger groups to produce fast laps. But no one was eager to lead the way.
“It’s a mess,” Earnhardt said. “You have to be in the very back and try to get a big tow. I ain’t ever seen anything like it. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Risky, too. Several cars turned down pit road to get away from the disorder. But the most common concern was the speed differences, with some packs creeping along while others ran full speed.
“It was really wild and it was pretty dangerous,” Matt Kenseth said. “There’s car doing 80 and there were cars doing 200 and nobody wanted to go. Everybody wanted to be in the back of the pack and try to catch the front to get a (fast) lap, so it was pretty chaotic.”
Similar qualifying took place at Talladega in May, when teammates stuck together in hopes of besting the field. But drivers clearly tweaked some things from those sessions.
“There was just so much going on out there and it’s a wonder we haven’t wadded a bunch of cars up,” Brian Vickers said. “A lot of guys running even slower than at Talladega and then some guys even taking chances on blocking the field, which was what really almost caused a few wrecks.”
Penske Racing teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were among those who did not advance past the first stage. Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch also did not get to the second knockout round.
Joe Nemechek was the only driver who did not qualify for Saturday’s 400-mile race.
“It’s just about being lucky as to who can make it through and who gets the right run,” McMurray said. “It’s just so crazy that everyone pulls out and doesn’t go and then stops. It is what it is. Everyone has the same conditions. It just doesn’t feel like racing ... because half the time people are running 40 mph. I don’t even really know what to say because it’s so messed up that I can’t explain it.”