NASCAR Phoenix Auto Racing

Austin Dillon drives during the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at ISM Raceway, Sunday in Avondale, Ariz. Dillon 'won' the pole for Sunday's race at Friday's qualifying. 

FONTANA — It was bizarre.

That’s the only way to explain it.

Thousands of NASCAR fans came out Friday to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana to watch qualifying for Sunday’s Monster Energy Cup Auto Club 400.

What they saw, mostly, was drivers sitting on pit row, watching the clock and waiting before rolling out in the last seconds.

Austin Dillon won the pole. Kevin Harvick will start second Sunday, followed by Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch.

When the day began, the wind was the big story. It was blowing so hard, the question, was would it push the cars all over the track?

“The wind was really a problem, especially driving through turns 3 and 4,” said Dillon. “Because of the wind, I had to change my driving style.”

The first round of qualifying, a 15-minute session, played out in a fairly normal fashion except for a red flag that was called after Chase Elliott spun out coming out of turn 2.

Dillon, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney were the top three as the field was whittled down to 24 cars for the second round.

That’s when the weirdness began.

This was a 10-minute round and the drivers all lined up on pit road waiting for the countdown clock to begin.

Kurt Busch raced out early and was alone on the track for his second qualifying run.

That run put him into first place.

The rest of the drivers just waited … and waited and waited … until with just over a minute left in the session, they all hit the track.

The field completed one lap before time expired with Dillon moving back into pole position.

Busch, despite being alone for his run, was bumped all the way back to 12th place.

That illustrated just how important pack racing is this years with the new downforce package the cars are running.

In the third round, a five-minute session among the top 12 drivers, no one left pit road until there was less the one minute left in the session.

The drivers finally hit the track, but none completed a lap before time ran out and Sunday’s lineup was set from the second round results.

“I’ve never won the pole without having to run the third round of qualifying. I think a lot of cars wanted to follow us so we waited and when the 18 (Kyle Busch) made a move, I just followed him.,” said Dillon. “No one wants to go out and be the sacrificial lamb. You don’t want to go out first and give someone else a pull.”

This all came about because of several rules changes implemented by NASCAR this season.

NASCAR eliminated single car qualifying and changed to pack qualifying with everyone on the track at the same time.

The organization also changed to a new downforce package that makes drafting more important than ever in the new pack qualifying format.

“I saw what our fans don’t want — the last 12 cars waiting until they can’t put a time on board,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition and Competition Administration. “I think we have to do better and I think we will definitely do some tweaks. We don’t want to go back to single car qualifying and we’ll find a way to adjust. I would say by Texas (the weekend of March 29) we would have something different.”

The Xfinity series takes over Auto Club Speedway on Saturday with the Production Alliance Group 300.

The Cup race will be held Sunday.

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Senior Sports Reporter

Elliott Stern has worked at Lee Central Coast Newspapers for the last 18 years after more than 30 years working in television and radio news and sports.