CLICK: Full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying results from Talladega Superspeedway
Changes to the qualifying procedure for superspeedway races led to confusion and chaos at Talladega on Saturday afternoon, with five Chase contenders ending up relegated to the back of the grid and only making the race at all thanks to their car owner points for what is for them one of the most important NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the year.
"This qualifying is the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my life," said Harvick, who will start Sunday's race from 38th place on the grid. "It just doesn't work on the speedways. They all made a plan and told me to be the lead guy. I took off and no one took off with me. Then we all sat around and here we are."
At least Harvick isn't relying on the result of the race to ensure his progression through to the third phase of the Chase, the Eliminator 8. His place is guaranteed thanks to his race win last time out at Charlotte, while Joey Logano is also through thanks to his race win the week before at Kansas which softens the blow of starting the GEICO 500 from 39th place.
But the same can't be said for Denny Hamlin (37th), Kyle Busch (40th) or Jeff Gordon (42nd), who were all badly caught out by the revised procedure, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was able to salvage a slightly better 29th place on the grid. Among non-Chase contenders left unhappy with the situation were Kyle Larson (41st) and Tony Stewart (43rd) who needed to exercise a past champion's provisional to get into the race at all.
At least two men were left happy with the way things worked out, as Michael Waltrip Racing's Brian Vickers mastered the new rules for qualifying and ended up topping the third and final round with a lap of 48.825s (196.129mph) to claim his 12th Cup pole position in 312 series starts, and his first pole of 2014.
"It's crazy," said a delighted Vickers. "I thought that coming to three to go that we had literally no shot. We were way back, like a half a straightaway behind the whole field, and they all checked up and gave me a chance and gave me a run. I really get no credit for it. I just tried not to wreck."
And alongside him for the green flag on Sunday will be the reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who badly needs a race win - or for several of the other Chase contenders to be hit by bad luck - if he's to make it through to the final eight in the championship play-offs. Starting from second place is a big step in achieving that vital transfer place.
"What a weird qualifying session," said Johnson. "There is no way around it. Confusion on multiple levels and I thought were completely out of the running and was able to suck back around on the guys and catch back up and get second, which I thought we were going to be 12th the way it all worked out. I don't know what happened exactly, but it worked out and we got ourselves and second-place starting spot.
"It gives us a great pit stall pick which will help," he pointed out. "It seems like there will be a lot of fuel only or two tyre stops so that will give us a nice pit lane pick. Maintaining track position is hard to do here, there are comers and goers all day long."
So what were the changes to superspeedway qualifying that produced such utter confusion and mayhem?
The three-round elimination format introduced at the start of the year remained, but the details were tweaked in an effort to stop the dangerous situation that had developed in superspeedway races earlier in the year at Daytona and Talladega. Some cars had been touring around the track at a much slower pace waiting for the ideal moment to pop up and catch a drafting parter, while other cars were already going flat out on qualifying runs. Everyone agreed that the possibility of a crash between cars going at wildly different speeds needed to be averted.
NASCAR's solution introduced this weekend was firstly to reduced all three rounds to just five minutes in length, limiting the number of laps drivers could complete and therefore stopping them from wasting time out on the track looking for drafting partners. However, 46 cars out on the track all trying to set flying laps in just five minutes was clearly problematic, and so NASCAR also decided to split the first round into two groups of 23 cars each according to a random draw.
After the first round was completed, the 24 eligible competitors that posted the fastest single lap speed from either of the first qualifying round groups all advanced to the second round. The remaining competitors were given a starting grid position based on the speed that they had posted in descending order. After a ten minute interval the rest of qualifying would proceed essentially as normal to decide positions 13-24 in round two and then the top 12 in the final pole shoot-out round three.
Denny Hamlin was the first man out on track in group 1 for round one, but found no one else came out with him - the rest of the field all paused on pit lane. That left Hamlin setting his laps without any aerodynamic advantage at all, and hence his lap time was a disappointing 50.863s (188.270mph) making him the slowest of the 23 drivers in the opening group.
"We just wanted to run a lap and if we happen to catch the pack just right great and if not then oh well. Just didn't catch it right," he explained. "It's kind of a dumb format, but what can you do. I guess it's supposed to be entertaining, but I don't know. We just wanted to get a lap in and the object of this is to make sure we start the race with the same car we practised."
Carl Edwards almost found himself in the same situation in group 2 after similarly going out first, but he was able to learn from the example of Hamlin's fate and quickly rejoined the rest of the field on pit road so that he could draft with the others.
"It seemed pretty obvious to us that since that first group waited that if the whole second group would have just gone out in a line, it would be possible that all of those cars would beat everyone in the first group," said Edwards. "That was my thought but it didn't work and maybe I was wrong anyway."
Moreover, the tense waiting game meant that some of the last cars to finally emerge from pit road to set their times in their respective groups. Particularly caught out was four-time series champion Jeff Gordon who recorded the slowest time of all the 46 drivers in the first round after the #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy failed to get fully up to speed before the chequered flag ended the session.
"The plan was shot before the plan started," he said. "I messed up ultimately. I just mistimed getting to the line. The whole group was going so slow I knew I had to have a gap and when I came across the line I thought I had enough to be able to complete that lap and get one more, which was the only way we were going to be able to make it. But we came up short. It's a mess out there. It's not easy."
The situation was even more grave for Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who was running behind Gordon and consequently had his qualifying lap compromised.
"I thought being the last car in line would be beneficial for us," Stenhouse said. "We had Jeff Gordon leading the pack there I thought we would have a good shot at putting a good lap in but my spotter was telling me, 'Hey, you have 30-seconds to get across the start-finish line' as we were entering turn three.
"I don't guess the #24's was giving him a lot of information. He kept slowing the pack down and we didn't get a good lap and never got across the start-finish line in time. My spotter was giving me the information I needed and I wish the #24 would have been doing the same."
In the end, Gordon only managed to make the race based on owner points, in which the top six cars in the standings are guaranteed a spot on the starting grid in any given week. Unfortunately Stenhouse had no such safety net to catch him, and as a result he failed to qualify for the 43-car grid for the first time in his Cup career and will therefore miss tomorrow's GEICO 500, although sponsorship imperatives may mean that some overnight deals could well be under discussion to get the #17 back in if possible.
"Is that official? Ricky is not in the race? Is there any way for them to get in? I don't know what will happen," said Stenhouse's RFR team mate Carl Edwards, who survived round 1 and went on to qualify in 15th position. "I imagine there will be some talking going on. I didn't think that could happen. I didn't know that was possible. I don't know. [Sponsors] Cargill and all those folks have done a lot for us so I am sure that as a group we will figure out a way to represent them well in the race. I don't know what Ricky's points situation is but I can't imagine them not doing everything they can to put him in the race somehow."
The whole thing - it's hard not to utilise the word 'debacle' - led to a very strange-looking grid for the final restrictor plate race of the season. Behind Vickers and Johnson on the front row will be JTG Daugherty Racing's AJ Allmendinger and Team Penske's Ryan Blaney.
"I'm not sure if it's exciting or really what it is," said Allmendinger. "If you get the big run you are lucky. If you don't you don't. It's really strange. It's really about luck. You hope you get the right gap at the right time.
"In the first group I think I crossed the line with two seconds to go and everybody else behind me didn't make it," he continued. "It's just strange. It's a weird format. I'm not sure it's any better than single car qualifying. It's hard to say, but it is what it is.
"I thought I had a shot at pole," he added, "Came to the line I thought it was the right amount of gap, but we kind of got held up as we went through 2 and allowed Brain to get a run on me and close the gap. Just try to avoid the big one tomorrow and hopefully we can get a good finish."
"That was fun!" said Blaney, taking a very different view of the whole tweaked qualifying experience to the majority of his fellow drivers. "I think it adds a cool factor to it. I can say that now because we didn't wreck a car. If there would have been a wreck we would have hated it. I think we have a really fast Ford for tomorrow and we are looking forward to it."
Blaney's senior team mate Brad Keselowski - another of the Chase contenders in serious need of a win or a very strong result tomorrow - is currently set to start from fifth place alongside Michael McDowell in the #95 Leavine Family Racing, but Keselowski feared that this might change overnight.
"I think we may end up going to the back because we broke an alternator or something. I don't see how it impacts anything," he sighed. "I am pretty sure. We will see. You guys know the rules better than I do. I don't even know what I just did."
Seventh on the grid went to BK Racing's Travis Kvapil who had earlier been fastest in round 2 who will start alongside Hendrick's Kasey Kahne. In what he announced earlier in the day would be his final Cup outing, Terry Labonte will start from ninth alongside Michael Annett, while Chase contender Ryan Newman shared row six with Martin Truex Jr.
Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth just missed out on progressing to the final round of qualifying which saw him qualify in 13th place one row ahead of Carl Edwards in 15th. However like Keselowski - with whom he brawled at the end of last weeks' race at Charlotte - Kenseth will also have to drop to the back of the field for the green flag as a result of needing an unapproved engine change to the #20 Toyota prior to qualifying.
Other than Stenhouse, the other two drivers who failed to make the grid for tomorrow's race were Justin Allgaier (HScott Motorsports) and Reed Sorenson (Tommy Baldwin Racing).
Full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying results from Talladega Superspeedway