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After safety concerns, NASCAR announces changes to qualifying

Mar 11, 2014, 7:06 PM EDT

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After multiple drivers and teams expressed safety concerns in recent weeks, NASCAR has announced several changes effective immediately for all elements of its knockout qualifying format for the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.

Teams will now be allowed to cool down their cars’ engines on pit road with the use of one cooling unit through either the left or right-side hood/cowl flap. The hood of the car must remain closed and the generator must not be plugged in.

Additionally, two crew members will be allowed over the wall to support the car and driver. Finally, cool-down laps on the track will no longer be permitted.

“The qualifying is new to all of us and as we have said over the past several weeks, we are looking at it from all aspects,” NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said in a statement. “Following discussions, both internally and with others in the garage area, we moved quickly to make a few revisions that will be effective starting with our two national series events at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend.

“We believe this will only enhance and improve what has demonstrated to be an exciting form of qualifying for our fans, competitors and others involved with the sport. Moving forward, we will continue to look at it and address anything else that we may need to as the season unfolds.”

The new qualifying format has garnered positive reaction, but drivers immediately noted the safety issue of having to run slow cool-down laps on the track after the format’s debut at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this month.

NASCAR initially resisted the allowance of cooling units in the pits because it didn’t want teams to open the hoods of the cars – which, in their eyes, would allow crew members to make illegal adjustments if they were inclined to do so.

However, the issue took on a bigger presence last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. After qualifying, Michael Waltrip Racing driver Brian Vickers said that having to run cool-down laps while other competitors were running at speed was “the most dangerous thing [he’s] ever done in racing.”

LVMS afforded Vickers and other drivers a proper apron to run the slow laps, but the room to do that at the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway – site of this weekend’s Nationwide and Cup events – is basically next to none.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 Team Penske Ford Fusion, said earlier today that the lack of real estate at Bristol could pose as a “potential issue” during qualifying.

But in a conference call this afternoon with various crew chiefs, the sanctioning body finally allowed the teams to use the cooling units. However, that apparently wasn’t their first plan.

An Associated Press report from Jenna Fryer relays word from multiple participants on the call that NASCAR initially said teams could use external fans in the pits. However, the idea was met with almost across-the-board objection.

Another potentially iffy aspect of knockout qualifying was not addressed today by NASCAR: The cars having to back out of their spot on pit road at the start of each round. Fryer reports that rule will remain intact at Bristol, because of procedures already in place at the track.

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