Friday 5: Weather conditions making greater impact on NASCAR

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For all the available apps and ways teams study weather conditions, Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ vice president of competition, whittles it down to its simplest form.

“The best weather app is just taking your hat off and seeing if it’s raining or not, and then you can stick it back on,” he said.

The future Hall of Famer is not wrong.

“We, unfortunately, are just like a weatherman on TV,” Knaus said. “You’re lucky if you get it about 75 percent. … We have our weather apps and programs. We do all the things most people do. But weather is weather, and it changes quickly.”

Weather will play a significant role for drivers and teams as they prepare for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET on Fox). It’s part of the greater impact weather conditions have had on the sport in recent seasons.

Ten of the 86 Cup races (11.6%) that have run since 2019 have been postponed because of rain.

That’s an increase of more than 100% compared to 2010-18, which saw rain postpone only 5.6% of Cup races. Rain was a factor last weekend at Circuit of the Americas, ending the Cup race 14 laps early with Chase Elliott the winner.

Rain delayed NASCAR Xfinity Series practice Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Weather also will play a key role this weekend in other ways.

The change in temperature from Friday’s Cup practice to Sunday’s race could be as much as 11-16 degrees, depending on the weather site one examines. Such a drastic change will alter setups and influence decisions by crew chiefs and drivers on how to prepare their car for NASCAR’s longest race of the year.

Weather’s impact on races only will increase as NASCAR becomes more willing to compete in wet conditions.

This season’s 36-race Cup schedule has a record seven road courses on it. Racing in wet conditions also could take place on short tracks. NASCAR held a wet weather tire test this week at Richmond Raceway. It followed a similar test in April at Martinsville Speedway. If all goes well, Cup cars may be able to race on a wet short track as early as this season.

NASCAR rain
The spray from cars created poor visibility for drivers last weekend at Circuit of the Americas. (Photo: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports)

As NASCAR embarks in this new direction, the sport is learning more.

The No. 1 issue is how to contain the spray of water from cars, which blinded drivers and led to multiple incidents at COTA. Kevin Harvick called racing in the rain at COTA the “most unsafe thing I’ve ever done in a race car.”

For drivers and teams, key issues include better windshield wipers and defoggers.

“In regards to wipers and blades and wiper motors and defrosters, defoggers,” Michael McDowell said, “we still have areas that we definitely need to be better, but it’s hard to know that until you get in those heavier rain conditions. 

“The (Charlotte Roval) last year was very different because the track was drying so fast and was almost dry when we started the race. Even though they had some spray and mist, the speeds are fairly low and it wasn’t a constant rain. So that was not a great test for the window and defogger. (Sunday at COTA) was the first time we’ve actually put it to a test.”

Five more road course races remain this season, including Cup’s first race at Road America since 1956 and the series’ first race on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“You have to anticipate that at some point you’ll have rain again, but it’s a process,” McDowell said. “Everybody is kind of learning from it as we go.”

Fluctuating temperatures are also challenging, especially at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Track conditions can change significantly there as the weather does. 

“All you can do is go back on your notes, maybe what hot temperatures compared to cool temperatures are and what it does to your balance, and try to adjust to that,” Joey Logano said. “That’s where experience, I think, really pays off.”

Friday night’s forecast calls for temperatures in the low-to-mid 80s when Cup cars practice. The temperature for the start of Sunday’s race is expected to be in the high 60s or low 70s.

The coldest Coca-Cola 600 was in 1971 when it was 66 degrees. The average temperature for the race the past 10 years has been 87 degrees.

“I think we have to be conscious of not over-adjusting in practice and not getting too tight or too loose and try to keep it somewhere in the middle and find a package that works,” William Byron said of practicing in warmer conditions than he’ll race.

“Honestly, I’m of the opinion that when the track is hotter and slicker (that) if your car handles better, it’s going to just handle better when you get to cooler conditions. We try to make it handle as well as possible for the conditions and then hopefully it’s just a little bit better when it gets cooler.”

2. A three-peat not seen in years

Hendrick Motorsports seeks to win its third consecutive Cup race this weekend for the first time since the 2015 playoffs when Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson won at Texas and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Phoenix.

The next Cup victory for Hendrick Motorsports also will break a tie with Petty Enterprises for most wins all-time in the series. Both organizations have 268. Hendrick enters the Coca-Cola 600 after Alex Bowman led a 1-2-3-4 finish at Dover two weeks ago, and Chase Elliott won last weekend at COTA. Kyle Larson has finished second in each of the last three races.

This has been a significant season for Hendrick Motorsports already. All four of its drivers have won a race, marking the first time that has happened in the same season since 2014.

Last year saw Hendrick Motorsports go 14 races between wins from May to August. Chase Elliott won the last two races of the season in capturing his first Cup title and the first for Hendrick Motorsports since 2016.

NASCAR Cup Series Drydene 400
Alex Bowman led a 1-2-3-4 Hendrick Motorsports finish at Dover earlier in May. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

It has been a long climb for Hendrick since Chevrolet debuted a new car in 2018. Chevrolet teams won only four races that season and seven the following season.

“I think we had to do some work on the car,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I think we submitted a car that was probably a little too vanilla, too many character lines, too much like a stock car when everybody else, Ford and Toyota, went more aggressive. We had to pay for it.

Then when the (Camaro) 1LE came out, all the teams worked together. It was (Chip Ganassi Racing, Richard Childress Racing) and us, and GM put a lot of effort into the car. We’re seeing the results. I feel like we’re even or as good as or better than a lot of the guys out there.”

Hendrick showed progress late last season and has carried that momentum into this year. Another key has been seven-time Cup champion crew chief Chad Knaus moving into the role of vice president of competition after last season.

“We’ve been working really hard since the middle of last year as an organization to get flipped and to get our performance where we needed it because we weren’t where we needed to be,” Knaus said. “And that wasn’t a happy place for anybody at Hendrick Motorsports.

“We decided at that point, as a company, that we were going to put our heads down and get to work and right the ship. By the end of the season, we were fortunate enough to get out there and win a couple of races in a row and pull off the championship in pretty dominating fashion with (Elliott’s team). I think we’ve been going down this path for a while, right? Have I helped? I hope so. If I’m not contributing, I’m probably not going to keep this job for very long (laughs).”

After 14 races, Hendrick Motorsports has five wins (two by Bowman and one each by Elliott, William Byron and Kyle Larson). The organization also has seven runner-up finishes. A Hendrick driver has finished second in six of the last nine races.

“We’ve been there every weekend,” said Larson, who has four runner-up finishes this year. “We’ve been challenging. You got to be happy with that. Like I said, we want the wins, but if you can’t win, second’s better than third.”

3. Highs and lows

Todd Gilliland turned 21 less than two weeks ago. Already his racing career has been one of extreme highs and lows.

After championships in what is now the ARCA Menards Series West division in 2016-17, Gilliland was viewed as one of the top prospects in NASCAR.

He joined Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series in 2018. But one win in 42 series starts and critical comments from Kyle Busch about the performance of his drivers, led to Gilliland moving on after the 2019 season. Front Row Motorsports started a Truck team in 2020 and Gilliland went there.

Last weekend at Circuit of the Americas, Gilliland scored his first win of the season — and first in the series since 2019.

He reflected this week on his trials and tribulations the last few years.

“It seems like you win a few races and you’re on top of the world, and then two or three so-so months go by and you’re just not being talked about and it’s the next guy up,” Gilliland said.

“I think just looking back, and even nowadays, there are so many super young guys that are being put out there as the next big thing, but even when I was younger you’re still so unproven. There’s still so much racing to go in your career. 

“I feel like I’ve matured leaps and bounds since I came into the Truck Series. People were saying great things about me when I came in, but I feel like I’m 10 times better than I was back then, so I think it’s all situational. I think you’ve just got to really take the best of every opportunity, but it definitely is hard going through it.”

The Truck Series races today at Charlotte Motor Speedway (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

4. “It’s sad, really”

Josh Berry has three races left this season with the No. 8 JR Motorsports team that he won with at Martinsville Speedway. Sam Mayer takes over the ride and will make his Xfinity Series debut June 27 at Pocono Raceway, a day after he turns 18 years old. Mayer will run the car the rest of the season.

Berry will drive for JR Motorsports in Saturday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET on FS). He’ll drive the June 5 race at Mid-Ohio for Jordan Anderson Racing and then run at Texas (June 12) and Nashville (June 19) for JR Motorsports.

“It’s sad, really,” Berry said of his time coming to a close with the No. 8 Xfinity team. “I love this group. We’ve had so much fun together. … We’ve had results to go with that over the last month or month and a half. You hate it, but we all knew that this was how it was going to be. There have been no surprises. We knew my opportunity was 12 races that we got to work together. I’m just thankful that it has gone as well as it has.”

Berry said he’s has discussions about potential rides, but he acknowledges commitments to JR Motorsports Late Model team and “that’s not something I’m willing to turn my back on.”

5. Looking to join the crowd

Brad Keselowski’s win in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 marked the first time he’s won this event. “I wanted to win the 600 my whole life,” Keselowski said after the race.

He was the third driver in the last four years to win the 600 for the first time. The others are Austin Dillon (2017)and Kyle Busch (2018).

Among those who have yet to win the 600 are points leader Denny Hamlin and former champions Joey Logano and Chase Elliott.

“I’ve been able to run really well at Charlotte over the years,” Logano said. “… I just haven’t won the Coke 600 yet, which is the one that stands out for me. Every time I look at a bucket list race, probably Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard are the ones that stand out that I really want next.”

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