Friday 5: NASCAR’s planned return to racing comes with a twist

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NASCAR’s return not only will mark the return of Ryan Newman from his Daytona 500 crash and Matt Kenseth from an unplanned retirement but of a new way of racing.

No practice. 

No qualifying (in most cases).

Just go and race.

NASCAR announced Thursday that there will be no practice before the Cup, Xfinity and Truck races scheduled for May 17-27 at Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. There also will be no qualifying at those races except for the May 24 Coca-Cola 600. Each event will be held in one day, allowing teams to return home afterward and not stay in a hotel.

The idea of one-day, midweek events could be considered for future seasons when normalcy returns and NASCAR ponders a schedule that ends before November. This year could provide a good test case.

But as the calendar turns to May, the focus for drivers is on competing at Darlington Raceway, considered among the sport’s more challenging tracks. Each driver’s first lap at speed on May 17 will come when the green flag drops for the race.

“I think we’re going to see real tangible value in our simulators,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports, alluding to how simulators will determine car setups in lieu of no practice.

Said Alex Bowman: “I think going to a place like Darlington is going to be really tough. Probably be a little rusty getting into Turn 1 if that was the first (lap of the day). That would be a tough place.”

Busch notes just how challenging those early laps at Darlington will be without practice.

“The biggest thing we’re all going to be faced with is the track’s rapidly changing conditions because we used to have the Truck Series or Xfinity Series to help lay down the rubber and create the look of where the groove is, and now (the groove is) going to be as green as it has ever been,” he said, noting Cup will be the first seres to resume.

“The pace is going to be astronomically fast in the beginning and (the groove is) going to be getting glazed over more rapidly during our race. Those are the things that crew chiefs, lead engineers and drivers are going to be challenged with in this unique setting.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said there would be a competition caution early in the May 17 Darlington race.

“Obviously we’re still working through what that may look like,” O’Donnell told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “We want to allow for some adjustments for the teams, so (there’s) a lot of dialogue still going on. I’m also confident when (Cup goes) back on Wednesday night on (May) 20th, you may see some different things based on what we learned with our opening event.”

When Cup drivers raced at Darlington in last September’s Southern 500, they faced a green track after rain delayed the race’s start by more than three hours. NASCAR added a competition caution at Lap 35 for that event since rain washed the rubber off the track.

“It’s just adapting to all that and trying to stay on top of it,” Bowman said of what racing at Darlington will be like.

2. “Huge responsibility”

NASCAR is set to become the first major sport to return during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Many likely will be watching to see how NASCAR does.

“We realize up front it’s a huge responsibility for us as a sport,” NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said of returning ahead of the NBA, NHL and before Major League Baseball can begin. “But I’m also confident in the group we’ve gathered to put this plan together. … We’re certainly going to learn as we go. But the process we put in place I think gives the industry the confidence that we can be first, we can do this in Darlington.”

After consultation with various medical and health officials at local, state and national levels, this is what NASCAR is planning for team members, drivers and others working upcoming races:

  • Anyone who will work at the track is being asked to self-monitor for five days for symptoms before the event.
  • Each person working at the track must fill out a questionnaire on their health and go through a temperature screening check.
  • If there are concerns based on a person’s temperature, they will go through additional screening that will include monitoring heart rate and oxygenation.
  • There also will be additional screening for essential personnel.
  • Temperature checks will be done randomly throughout the event. Symptomatic patients will be removed from the event and given medical care if needed.
  • Everyone going into the infield must wear cloth masks as they move about.
  • Cup haulers will be spread out in the infield for social distancing among teams. Driver motorcoaches also will be spread out to keep competitors away from each other.
  • There will be one-way walkways to further promote social distancing.
  • On pit road, over-the-wall crew members must have a fireproof sock mask that will go from their nose down to below their chin or use a face screen from above their eyes to below their chin.
  • Spotters will be spread out in the empty stands, all at least 6 feet away from each other.
  • After the race, NASCAR will stagger the exit of crews to maintain social distancing.
  • Because COVID-19 tests remain in limited supply, NASCAR states those tests should be targeted for people most in need.
  • NASCAR recommends that crew members who are at the track not work in the race shop between events.
  • NASCAR also asks all participants to keep a log of who they’ve interacted with throughout the course of a day in case they later have a positive test. That way, those who have come in direct exposure can be contacted and asked to isolate for 14 days.

“We have a lot of confidence in our plan,” said John Bobo, NASCAR vice president of racing operations. “We know we have to work together as an industry to keep our own folks safe, to keep each community safe.”

Brian Symmes, communications director for South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, issued a statement to NBC Sports about NASCAR’s guidelines to race at Darlington. Symmes stated:

“We’ve worked closely with NASCAR as they’ve planned this event and developed their exhaustive guidelines and requirements for anybody working at the raceway that day. We’re confident that those plans will protect South Carolinians from the virus and allow for a great experience for NASCAR fans to enjoy the start of the season.”

3. Getting the band back together

Chip Ganassi Racing’s hiring of Matt Kenseth for the rest of the season for the No. 42 car, reunites Kenseth with former teammate Kurt Busch.

They both drove for what is now Roush Fenway Racing from 2000-05. Kenseth won the 2003 championship. Busch won the 2004 title.

Kenseth told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan earlier this week about reuniting with Busch:

“I’ve always said he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of really good teammates. Kurt as a teammate is always very unselfish. He always works really, really hard at it. Puts in the extra time. Asks the questions. Gives his input. Does all the things that you really appreciate as a teammate.”

Busch called Kenseth’s words “humbling.”

Busch said his approach is guided by the philosophy that “if I can make the whole team better, then I’ve got a better chance of winning.”

Busch said Kenseth was instrumental to him early in his career.

“He taught me consistency when we were younger,” Busch said. “He had an incredible ability to just bang out solid, solid finishes every week. When I finally got my footing, it helped propel me to that championship in 2004. I think the two of us did a great job of pushing each other as young guys. We had Mark Martin and Jeff Burton to look up to. The communication has always been seamless with Matt.”

Now, Kenseth likely will lean on Busch. Kenseth last raced in the Cup Series in the 2018 season finale. Busch said he will help Kenseth in any way.

Said Kenseth this week: “Hopefully once we get this thing rolling, I can reciprocate and help (Busch) as well.”

4. Just the beginning

Cup teams racing four times between May 17-27 is just the beginning of what will be a busy time. NASCAR intends to run the remaining 32 races in the next 25 weeks, finishing the season Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway as scheduled.

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said that the intention remains for Pocono to host the first Cup doubleheader on June 27-28 but that there could be one or two tracks with doubleheaders. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday, Dover Motorsports, which operates Dover International Speedway, stated that it is “possible that our May NASCAR Cup Series event will be moved to August and that we hold a doubleheader with back-to-back NASCAR Cup Series events held on Saturday and Sunday.”

With all this racing in a compressed window this season, what will it do to teams?

“We have to ramp up motor-wise, gearbox-wise, all these things,” car owner Rick Ware said. “We’ll be able to get through this. It’s going to be a lot of work.”

Getting the work done between races could prove challenging for some teams.

“I think the more bench strength you have, the more you’re able to absorb the added workload and extra demands,” Richard Childress Racing President Torrey Galida told NBC’s Jerry Bonkowski. “The teams that will really take it on the chin are the small teams. They only have a few people in the shop when they leave for the racetrack.”

5. What if …

With no qualifying for the upcoming races — except for the Coca-Cola 600 — NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell was asked how the field will be set.

He said the first race back for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks likely would be based on car owner points but after that?

He stated various ideas were being examined including setting a starting lineup based on the finishing order of the previous race.

That’s similar to how NASCAR will align the field for the second race during the Pocono doubleheader weekend in June. The starting lineup for the weekend’s second race will be an inversion of how all the lead-lap cars finished in the weekend’s first race.

A new concept catching on? Hmmm.

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