Friday 5: Drivers get ready for a challenging season of change

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As Kevin Harvick prepares for a NASCAR schedule as diverse as he’s ever experienced, the former Cup champion sees more change coming.

With a record seven road course races, the first Cup race on dirt since 1970 and fewer events at 1.5- and 2-mile tracks, NASCAR is going through a dramatic transition with its schedule.

“The most changes since 1969,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president, when the schedule was unveiled in September.

The result is that competitors will be tested in ways they have not.

Harvick, the oldest active full-time Cup driver at age 45, only can imagine what challenges will come for the next generation of racers.

“As motorsports goes forward, I think that the preparation and the level of things that you need is going to be different than the tools you’ve needed in the past,” he told NBC Sports. “You’re going to have to be very versatile in the things that you do.

“You look at this particular season. You’re going to have to be a darn good road racer on the NASCAR side, but you’re also going to have to have a little bit of dirt experience in there along with some short-track experience.

“You look at everything that it takes, I think you need to be as well rounded as you bring these kids up. … I don’t think that’s going to change. I think that’s going to become more extreme in how versatile you need to be.”

For some competitors, the changes already seem extreme — even after a season where there was no practice or qualifying before most races.

“It will be interesting and exciting to watch, for sure, and a little nerve-racking for the competitions as we have no idea what is around the corner,” Joey Logano told NBC Sports.

Six of the seven road courses are in the regular season. There had not been more than two in the regular season since NASCAR switched to a postseason format to determine the champion in 2004. While reigning champion Chase Elliott has won the past four road course races, others are not conceding any of those races this season.

“I’m no Chase Elliott, but I try to hang the best I can on the road course,” Ryan Blaney told NBC Sports.

He’s done well. Blaney has four top-five finishes in the last six road course races, including a win.

William Byron said he anticipates this year’s schedule will alter the balance of power in the sport.

“I think you’ll see less of domination from one team because you won’t be able to just go off the setup that you ran at Michigan and take that to another 2-mile track and do well like you see during the summer,” he told NBC Sports. “Typically in the summer, the guys that are fast at Michigan (that) kind of carries over to some of the bigger tracks and it’s kind of hard to overcome the dominance of those guys and their teams.

“Now with a bunch of road courses in the mix, I doubt you’re going to see consistency like that to be fast every week.”

Harvick and Denny Hamlin combined to win eight of 11 races between last June and August at tracks 1.5-miles or longer.

Also different is that three of the final seven races in the regular season will be on road courses: Road America (July 4) Watkins Glen (Aug. 8) and Indianapolis (Aug. 15). Those races could alter who makes the playoffs.

The Bristol dirt race also could give Cup drivers with a dirt background a chance to secure a playoff spot with a win early in the season.

“I don’t think anybody has a clue of how it’s going to be,” Kyle Larson told NBC Sports of the March 28 race at Bristol. “I think that’s what intriguing to me is the unknown and kind of having to adapt to something totally different. Even though it’s a dirt track, it’s not even close to what I’m used to racing on on dirt.”

After this year? There’s a new car radically different from what competitors have raced.

This is a new era in NASCAR,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports. “Lack of practice, jumping into these races and trying to collect stage points vs. putting yourself in position to win. The new simulators, the iRacing world, the new tracks, the new car. … If you get stuck in your ways, you’re getting put a lap down right now.”

2. Special anniversary

Cup rookie Chase Briscoe had overlooked the significance of Monday until a tweet he posted on Feb. 1, 2014, popped up on his phone.

Briscoe began his journey to North Carolina that day, leaving Indiana. He wrote in the tweet that he didn’t have a ride with any team and that “I’m not going to get anything unless I’m down there in the middle of it. I’m looking forward to this adventure and hoping to get back in a car soon.”

Briscoe said seeing the tweet seven years later brought back the emotions of that day.

“I was so excited to kind of start a new journey but also so nervous and really didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. “I was fresh out of high school. I remember my mom, right before I left, literally trying to teach me how to do the laundry because she had always done it for me while I was in high school. 

“I was green to everything. I never had a credit card or a debit card. I literally went down with $150 in cash and just pretty much thrown into the world and try to figure it out.”

After two years, he still did not have a ride and was set to return to Indiana.

“Literally the day I was driving home I remember I was in Kentucky, called my mom,” Briscoe said. “I was in tears and told her I was moving back home. I was over it. I had been down there for two years and didn’t have anything. I was going to go run a midget that weekend and the following Monday I was going to drive back down, get my stuff and go back home. 

“Two hours later … I got a call from an ARCA team asking me if I was interested in coming and doing a test, and that was the Cunningham Motorsports team. I went there that following Monday and started volunteering my time.

“I’d been sleeping on couches for almost two years to that point and just started hanging out around their shop trying to be the first one to be there and the last guy to leave. I think I volunteered for a full nine or 10 months until I even got in a race car. They somehow, I don’t know why, decided they were going to let me race for them, and we went and ran for the championship in 2016 and was able to win the championship.”

That led to a development deal with Ford. His win in the Xfinity Roval race in 2018 led to a ride with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity program and to the Cup ride this year.

“There were so many doors that probably shouldn’t have been opened that were somehow able to get opened,” he said. “When that (memory) popped up today, I just think of all the people that were willing to give me an opportunity when I didn’t have a resume.”

3. Tears of appreciation

Ryan Newman says he has no memory of his accident in last year’s Daytona 500 that bruised his brain.

“I don’t have any fear because I don’t have any memory” of the accident, Newman said.

The Purdue University engineering graduate says he’s looked at various videos of the incident to study the crash and understand all that the car went through.

“YouTube is an amazing tool,” Newman said. “I didn’t realize somebody had created a YouTube video of every angle of my crash until probably a month or two, maybe three months ago. … I literally laid in bed one morning as it popped up – ‘We know you like these things, so check this out.’ ‘Well, hell, that’s me.’

“So I looked at it and I watched it and it was just a different perspective. It brought tears to my eyes. Like, ‘Damn.’ But those are tears of respect and appreciation, not tears of sadness because I was here and I was able to watch it and know that just down the hallway my kids were going to wake up shortly.”

4. A “Super” conversation

Asked which athlete they’d like to meet, a few Cup drivers pointed to Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, who goes for his seventh Super Bowl title Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.

“His competitive nature, I think, is something that anybody could respect,” Chase Elliott told NBC Sports. “That would be a guy that I would love to have a conversation with and talk about a little of everything.”

Elliott would want to talk to Brady about his mental approach.

“People are always like you set your mind to it, you can do whatever, within reason,” Elliott said. “You can really manipulate a lot of thinking in your head with the right amount of nudge from one corner or the other. It can really sway you.

“There’s absolutely a big mental game in anything you do, whether it’s sports or anything. I think the mental side is big, and he seems like a guy who has that very well in hand and obviously just his presence and whatever he brings from a leadership side of things is impressive. If you look at what he’s done this year. That’s pretty wild.”

Joey Logano also would like to have a conversation with Brady.

“Doing it for so long as he has and to be at that level would probably be my questions, how has he evolved over the years,” Logano told NBC Sports. “Playing as a 25-year-old is different than playing as a 40-something year old. How he has evolved has been pretty impressive. How he has changed his strengths over the years to be great is something really cool to see, and I’d like to ask him about that.”

5. Small group

Only four active driver/crew chief combinations have been together for more than 100 races heading into the Feb. 14 Daytona 500.

Those pairings are:

248 races — Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers

177 races — Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson

142 races — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and crew chief Brian Pattie

118 races — Alex Bowman and crew chief Greg Ives

The next pairing is Austin Dillon and crew chief Justin Alexander. They’ve been together for 95 races.

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