Each of the three Cup races held since the Daytona 500 has featured an unknown.
Those races – at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix – each featured a different form of the 2019 rules package for teams to figure out.
Atlanta saw cars with 550 horsepower and brake ducts. Las Vegas swapped in aero ducts. The 1-mile ISM raceway in Phoenix had cars with 750 horsepower and brake ducts.
This weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway will be the first to use a package for a second time, as teams take to the 2-mile track with 550 horsepower and aero ducts.
Add the package to the track’s worn surface and wide corners, there’s one aspect of the race drivers seem to agree on.
Like Phoenix, restarts will be pivotal. But they’ll also be wild.
“I think the crew chiefs will be covering their eyes on restarts,” Clint Bowyer said in a media release. “These restarts are going to be crazy. They have been in the past at that track, so who knows how wild they’ll be this weekend.”
In a media release, Ty Dillon said cars can be taken seven-wide in the corners “if you wanted to.”
When talking about restarts, Bowyer sounds like he’s mulling strategy at Daytona or Talladega when deciding whether to race with the lead pack or avoid a multi-car wreck by riding in the back.
“As a driver, you think I should get up there and race and get as many positions as I can,” Bowyer said. “But, part of you is thinking that maybe I should just be safe this early in the race, hang back a bit and make sure we survive. Problem is, if you hang back and they don’t wreck, you feel stupid.”
But what should be expected after the first lap?
“I think those first four or five laps are going to be really crazy still,” William Byron said in a release. “I think that the lane choices that you have at Auto Club Speedway will help keep the racing a little bit closer, and with that, you are going to have to kind of be gritty throughout the run to keep your position.
Matt DiBenedetto thinks complaints of “dirty air” inhibiting the ability to pass will be less frequent on Sunday.
“You can go into the corner and run about ten different lanes, so I don’t think that we’ll have that problem,” DiBenedetto said in a media release. “We’ll be able to go and get the clean air in the corners and then draft on the straightaways, so I think it will work this weekend where we can actually pass quite a bit, unlike at some other tracks so far.”
Though cars will feature aero ducts like at Las Vegas, DiBenedetto’s crew chief, Mike Wheeler, anticipates the racing will look “like the racing we saw in Atlanta,” which also features an aged, rough surface.
“Cornering won’t be as difficult as what you would have seen at Fontana last year, because you’re still going to be wide open through the corners and then being trimmed out to go as fast as you can down the straightaways,” Wheeler said in a media release. “Ultimately though, that top speed in the 170’s will still be that same top speed no matter what track we go to. California, unlike Michigan and Texas, can wear tires out so that could also become more of a factor this weekend.”
Then comes pit strategy.
As one of the larger ovals on the NASCAR circuit, Auto Club Speedway invites a variety of decisions on when a team chooses to get four fresh tires if they must during a green-flag run.
“When you add in the tire falloff, then it becomes strategy and how many laps do you stay out when everybody else starts pitting because you’re going to give up three seconds a lap,” Kevin Harvick said in a media release. “If the caution comes out, you can get caught a lap down. So there are so many things that come into play, but it has become a great race and a great racetrack to race on.”
“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.
“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”
Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season.
Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.
“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.
“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”
2. A fresh outlook
Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.
Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.
“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.
“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”
3. Who is No. 1?
Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).
So which one is the strongest?
It might be another team.
“I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”
Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.
“I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.
“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.
“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”
4. More blocking?
In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.
Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?
“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.
“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”
“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.
“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”
5. An Olympian effort
Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.
He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.
In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.
Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.
He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.
After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.
“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”
Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.
“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”
Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.
“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.
“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”
CONCORD, N.C. — Five days after Clint Bowyer threw several punches at Ryan Newman as Newman sat in his car after the All-Star Race, the two sat side by side during an autograph session at a Bass Pro Shops near Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Both drivers talked this week before they got to the autograph session.
“It was good to have a conversation about it,” Bowyer said Thursday night after qualifying eighth at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. “At the end of the day there were a lot of things that escalated very fast and obviously got out of hand.
“There’s one thing I can always promise you about something like that and it is unfortunate, and you hate having things like that happen, (but) that’s probably the best attended autograph session at Bass Pro Shops that I’ve had in a long, long time.
“Obviously I don’t want to do that every weekend. At the end of the day we all love this sport, we are all passionate about this sport and every now and then that shows a little brighter.”
Bowyer was asked if he thought Newman would retaliate.
“I don’t know,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully it’s behind us. We both have a little better understanding of how it escalated into that and you’ve just got to get stuff like that behind you.”
Newman said it was good to talk to Bowyer about what happened.
“It was good to kind of clear the air,” Newman said. “It is what it is. It’s the past. Just something you always remember. You learn about somebody in a situation like that.”
Newman was asked if he’ll race Bowyer differently.
“I try to race everybody the same way and that’s hard because that’s what I get paid to do,” said Newman, who qualified 18th for the Coca-Cola 600. “I try to give-and-take when I came. The way it works anymore with stage points, especially in the All-Star race, you don’t give and take. You take.”
“This is awesome, a dream come true,” Byron told FS1. “Obviously, I grew up in Charlotte so I came to this race every year. It’s a dream come true to qualify on the pole next to Hendrick Motorsports across the street over there. … Can’t think of a better way to start the weekend.”
Byron has qualified on the front row five time this year and four times in the last seven races.
The pole is the 12th for Hendrick Motorsports in the 600, which leads all teams.
Busch has qualified in the top three for the last three 600s.
Corey LaJoie‘s No. 32 Ford failed pre-qualifying inspection twice, resulting in the ejection of an engineer.