Friday afternoon’s single-car runs at Texas Motor Speedway represented only the second time INDYCAR’s new qualifying order rule was utilized but the first time it had an appreciable impact on the session and, potentially, the championship.
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In January, the Verizon IndyCar Series Official Rule Book was updated with several new provisions including one that altered the process for setting the qualification order at all ovals except for Indianapolis. Rather than random draw, the order is set at the five other oval races in reverse order based on entrant points.
Only one of the five affected ovals is in the first half of the season. As the ninth round of 17, Texas marks the middle of the season. The remaining three tracks are in the second half — when the championship will come into sharper focus with each race.
Given that it was just the second race of 2018, the qualifying order at ISM Raceway in Phoenix was identical to the finishing order of the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, excepting the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Honda which skipped Phoenix.
With the championship still entirely in flux after only one race, the qualifying order rule change had little impact on a points battle still in its infancy for the Phoenix race. True to its intentions, the non-random order did benefit those who qualified later in the session with St. Pete victor Sebastien Bourdais qualifying last and earning the pole with a 188.539 mph two-lap average.
Alexander Rossi, 20th to qualify out of 22 drivers at Phoenix, also benefited from his position at the back of the qualifying queue as he qualified to Row 2 just behind Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, despite respective finishes of 13th and 10th in St. Petersburg.
Graham Rahal, the penultimate qualifier at Phoenix, wasn’t as fortunate. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver could only muster a 183.920 mph average, good for 12th on the starting grid at the first oval race of the year.
Six rounds later, the qualifying order at Texas represented nearly a half-season of racing. For the first time, the new rule had a genuine impact on both the starting lineup and the larger championship picture.
The last six qualifiers — the top six in the drivers’ standings following the recent Chevrolet Dual in Detroit — all earned top-10 starting positions. Four drivers were able to overcome their less-than-optimal spot in the qualifying order to secure a start from within those five frontmost rows.
With the halfway point of the season to be reached during the Texas race, just 39 points separate championship leader Power and Texas pole sitter Josef Newgarden in fifth. Two ovals will kick off the final stretch of four races that will culminate in the crowning of a champion at Sonoma Raceway.
At both Pocono Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park — the 14th and 15th rounds — the order of qualifications will be based on 13 rounds of competition. Hence, drivers that enter the final rounds of the season in the championship hunt will have more of an advantage than ever during this late stage of the year.
The third oval race of the year will begin at 7:45 p.m. CDT Saturday with Newagrden on pole and undoubtedly aiming to close the gap to Indianapolis 500 winner Power.