Friday 5: Some drivers get early start back on track

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When drivers strap into their Cup cars May 17 at Darlington Raceway, it won’t be the first time some will have raced since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sport in March.

Some drivers have run laps — or plan to do so — at GoPro Motorplex, an 11-turn, 0.7-mile kart track in Mooresville, North Carolina, to prepare for the resumption of the season.

“I think going to the karting track is something that’s big on our priority list,” William Byron said, noting that is among the reasons he won’t compete in Saturday’s Pro Invitational Series iRacing event at virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway.

“The karting track will be a good tool leading up (to Darlington). Also the Chevrolet simulator as well. I think there’s a lot of tools that can be used. I’m going to try to prepare as similar as I do for the first race at Daytona every year, try to just follow those lines.”

When Cup drivers race at Darlington next weekend, it will mark 71 days since they competed at Phoenix Raceway, the last event before the season was suspended. For perspective, this past offseason lasted 82 days between last year’s season finale at Homestead and the first day of practice at Daytona.

Kurt Busch told NBC Sports that he typically does some karting in January to prepare for the new season. He was karting earlier this week at GoPro Motorplex, posting a video on social media before he hit the track with Matt Kenseth and Ross Chastain.

But what makes karting so meaningful when drivers can stay home and compete on their iRacing simulators?

“It’s being in a car and feeling the adrenaline of the roadway underneath you and your seat-of-the-pants feel,” Busch said.

Tyler Reddick likens karting as another way to prepare mentally and physically to race.

“Where it gets challenging in the go-karts is that there’s no seat belt and you have to hold yourself up and steer the wheel and be smooth and be fast while doing it,” Reddick told NBC Sports.

“You’re constantly having to find ways, as you’re continuing to wear your body out, to be sure you are steering the kart to the best of your ability so you can continue to put out those fast lap times. I think that’s what makes it a lot harder.

“With that being said, a go-kart has no head rest. You’re working your neck, you’re working your arms, you’re working your core, your shoulders, every bit of your body is getting worked fairly hard even down to your legs. … It just further pushes the body, and I think it’s a great way to get a body … working really hard in a quick time.”

2. Simulator time 

Among the most popular tools drivers and teams will use to prepare for the May 17 Darlington race will be the simulators each manufacturer has. With no practice or qualifying before the race, the simulators that Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota have in the Charlotte, North Carolina region, will play a significant role in helping determine a car’s setup.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer was in Ford’s simulator earlier this week preparing for the return of racing. That session not only helped his team on setups but will help him because his first lap in a Cup car at Darlington will be when the green flag waves next weekend.

The manufacturer sim rigs provide significant data for drivers and teams before race weekends. 

“We can actually plug in our setups and make practice changes and stuff like that and actually get a feel of how things are going to react,” Custer said.

Since drivers won’t know how their cars will react until the green flag waves, at least being prepared for how they are expected to handle at the start should help.

3. Say what?

There are many additional details with NASCAR’s event protocol that crew chiefs and teams will have to be aware of before they go to Darlington next week.

Some of those points include the recommendation that teams minimize the contact the pit crew has with the road crew at the track, social distancing guidelines and adherence to NASCAR’s policy and directives.

But for each item there are many other issues to work through.

Crew chief Cliff Daniels at Watkins Glen in 2019. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

For example, everyone in the infield must wear a cloth mask at all times. That includes crew chiefs, who will have a mask between their mouth and radio mic when they talk to their driver, spotter or any other team members. With the noise from the cars racing by, any filter that could garble or soften a crew chief’s voice could create communication issues.

Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, has looked into the matter.

“That has been discussed and right now with the masks that we believe that NASCAR will require the teams to use and the ones that we’ve been using back at the shop, actually quite a few of these conference calls that I’m on daily, our teammates back in the shop are wearing these masks and it’s not nearly as bad (to understand them),” Daniels told NBC Sports.

“Right now our plan is to really be strict on ourselves to adhere to all the guidelines for wearing the masks and the (Personal Protective Equipment). I’m sure if there is some sort of communication issue, you may have to briefly peel the mask off to talk into the mouthpiece and put the mask back on. For right now, we all seem to be petty confident that we can be audible through the mask to talk over the headset.”

Ben Beshore, crew chief for Harrison Burton in the Xfinity Series, told NBC Sports’ Daniel McFadin: “I haven’t played with (the masks) yet. I’m going to have to at some point. I’m not too worried about that. I think some of the surgical type masks are thin enough the voice should travel through there. I just maybe have to talk up a little bit more. I don’t think it’ll be a big deal. We’ll work around it.”

4. Additional details when NASCAR returns

NASCAR recently addressed many guidelines that teams will be required to follow, including health screenings at the track.

Here are additional details from NASCAR’s event operations protocol that have been created after consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and local, state and federal government recommendations.

  • NASCAR will assign specific times for participants to arrive for pre-entry screening. Order of priority on race day will be NASCAR officials, approved suppliers, team road crew required for inspection and road crew by position. 
  • Participants are to confine their movement to their primary work area. An example is that spotters will not be allowed in the infield at any time. Spotters will be required to meet social distancing guidelines of being 6 feet apart from each other.
  • Team Haulers and race cars will have a minimum of 6 feet of open space between them when parked in the garage. Hauler doors will remain open as much as possible to allow entry and exit without touching the door. Designated restricted areas will be marked in the infield, including directional paths for walking.
  •  Teams will use a private chat with NASCAR as the primary communications with series officials during a race to minimize direct interaction.
  • If a driver is involved in an accident or otherwise unable to continue and track services personnel respond, the driver must continue wearing their helmet until a safety worker provides an appropriate face mask for the driver.
  • If a team does not finish the race, that team may exit the  garage area at their discretion but must undergo post-event screening requirements, post-event vehicle and equipment disinfecting requirements and maintain proper social distancing during their preparation and departure.
  • After a series departs, the garage area must be disinfected before another series occupies the garage.

5.  In case you believe in signs …

The last time Darlington Raceway hosted a Cup race in May … Matt Kenseth won.

It was in 2013. Denny Hamlin finished second and was followed by Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.

Kenseth makes his return to the Cup Series next weekend at Darlington. He takes over the No. 42 car after Chip Ganassi Racing fired Kyle Larson for using a racial slur during an iRacing event last month.

In 2014, Darlington moved to April on the Cup schedule and then returned to its traditional Labor Day weekend spot in 2015.

NASCAR states that Darlington will keep its Southern 500 race in September so the races the track will host May 17 and May 20 will come from other tracks. NASCAR plans to reveal next week the tracks that will lose a date this season.