Drivers will face a challenge that they’ve never experienced in Cup

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Regan Smith was on a golf course Thursday afternoon when he got the call asking him to fill in this weekend for Kasey Kahne at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Smith will climb into the No. 95 car having run no laps in it after both practices and qualifying were rained out this weekend — marking the first time in at least 15 years (and possibly much longer, veteran observers say) that a Cup race will be run without any practice or qualifying.

That it comes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track known be tough on tires, makes the task all the more daunting for every driver, let alone Smith, who last raced in June 2017.

“Is this a pep talk?” Smith joked. “Is this your idea of a pep talk because I’m not feeling this is a pep talk.”

Smith understands what he faces.

“When I looked at the weather forecast after I committed to it, that’s when I said ‘oh …,” he said, realizing the chances that his first lap in a car in more than a year would be when the green flag waved. “It is a challenging situation and the weather is going to add to that.”

It will be a challenge for everyone.

Alex Bowman last raced at this track in 2015 and comes into the regular-season finale holding the last playoff spot. If there is a new winner, he could be bumped out of the playoffs.

But he has a bigger concern, at least early in the race.

From my point of view, I haven’t been here in so long that I’m just trying to put four corners together and not mess up,” said Bowman, who last drove on the track last year in a test.

Racing Insights confirmed that there has never been a Cup race run without a practice since at least 2003. Records about practice sessions are incomplete before then but anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s been much longer, meaning that no starter in today’s race likely has ever faced this situation in Cup.

Kurt Busch said he would like to have a warm-up session before the race to “shake the cars down and literally park them on pit road, have an hour or so break and go race.”

The forecast likely won’t allow for that. There is a 74 percent chance of rain up to 7 a.m. and then it falls to between 40-54 percent to the scheduled 1p.m. ET start.

Some drivers expect NASCAR to call at least two competition cautions for today’s race on NBCSN. Jamie McMurray suggested a competition caution at Lap 10 and another at Lap 25 for the 160-lap race. NASCAR has not announced when it will have a competition caution or how many it will have for this race.

The issue is that this track takes time to rubber in, meaning that the first set of tires wears quickly and can get to the cords in a short time. Once the track takes rubber, the tire wear improves significantly.

“You spend your first set of tires just laying rubber down,” Kyle Busch said. “That’s pretty much it. You’ve got to count on everybody laying rubber down on their first set of tires. After that, you can pretty much start to learn what you got going on.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who must win this race to make the playoffs, said he hopes the lack of practice time actually helps his team.

“I always tend to feel like sometimes we’re better off just if we lined them up and raced, so I’m OK with doing that,” he said.

Cup drivers won’t have to worry about history repeating next week. The forecast for next weekend’s playoff-opening race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway calls for sunny skies and a high of 102 degrees.