One of the longest seasons in sports reaches its longest event this weekend with the Coca-Cola 600. As NASCAR heads into Sunday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, nearly 2/3 of the Cup season remains.
For fans, that’s great. The Cup Series will race 23 of the next 24 weekends through early November.
For team members, that can be daunting — even those accustomed to the grind of a 38-race season that includes two exhibition races.
This follows an offseason that Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, describes as “unprecedented.” The switch to the Next Gen chassis forced teams to abandon the cars run last year and build a new fleet of vehicles. Teams did that work while also testing the new cars. NASCAR had four two-day organizational tests in the offseason.
“Most people don’t understand how much work was done over the winter … this is probably the most work in 15, 18 years,” Brian Pattie, crew chief for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., told NBC Sports earlier this month.
The work continued through the start of the season. With supply chain issues, some parts for the new car were harder to acquire. That forced teams to remove some parts from their cars after races and fly those pieces with the crew back to North Carolina to put on the car for the next race.
All that work took place with little relief for teams. They lost one of their traditional weekends off when Cup raced Easter night on the dirt at Bristol. With the return of practice and qualifying this season, Cup teams also are spending at least one more day a week at the track than last year.
“Now, the trucks are loading and leaving earlier,” said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Christopher Bell. “That means we as team guys are working longer hours. On top of that, we’re gone more with the track schedule and then we don’t have the off weekends.
“That’s a lot more stress on the guys and their home lives and their families, especially contrasted with how it was during the COVID schedule (no practice and qualifying for most events), maybe not so much compared to the three-day weekends with three practices and a full qualifying session that we had a few years ago.
“On top of that, there has been a bit of a workforce reduction leading into this new car and a lot of teams — not specifically Joe Gibbs Racing — probably cut that a little shorter, a littler shorter than what they needed to based on the amount of work that they thought was going to have to get done vs. what’s having to get done with the parts availability issues. That puts a whole another level of stress.”
That has crew chiefs seeking ways to give crew members some time off. Bigger teams can give road crew members a weekend off at times during the season since they have others who can fill in, but smaller teams don’t always have that luxury.
Crashes added to the workload. After crossing the line seventh in the Daytona 500, the car of Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell was hit, turning it into the wall after the race ended.
“We were under the crunch with the parts and pieces and stuff that we didn’t have and we had tight turnarounds,” McDowell’s crew chief, Blake Harris, said of the beginning of the season. “The West Coast (swing after Daytona) is a challenge. You tear cars up at Daytona and (the Clash at the Coliseum). There was a lot that we were up against early in the season.
“I feel like over the last five to six weeks we’ve gotten a bit of a rhythm here. Our road crew gets a little bit of time off, Mondays. … We’ve had a few weeks here where … we fly out on Saturday mornings instead of Friday for tech, which just a couple of weeks like that really helps the guys that travel.
“From my end and the engineers’ side, we’re going to get an off weekend coming up, short of that, those guys, hopefully can help manage their own time.”
The lone off weekend for the Cup is June 18-19.
The key, Harris said, is for his team to be able to work ahead instead of repairing cars.
“If we can work a couple of weeks ahead of things, then you don’t end up burning all hours of the night every night, which was and has been a big issue at the beginning of this year,” he said. “Shop-wise we’re starting to get enough parts and pieces, chassis and components that we can get those things together.”
2. Dynamic duo
Denny Hamlin and Justin Marks are among two of NASCAR’s newest owners and seek to lead change in the sport.
Hamlin partnered with Michael Jordan to form 23XI Racing last year. Bubba Wallace scored the team’s first win last year at Talladega. Kurt Busch, who joined the team before this season, gave the organization its second win earlier this month at Kansas.
Marks is partnered with performer Pitbull in owning Trackhouse Racing. Daniel Suarez joined the team for its inaugural season last year. Ross Chastain was added to the team before this season and already has won twice.
What Hamlin and Marks are doing off the track could have as much impact as anything they do in the sport.
“I think that me and Justin are aligned most of the time,” Hamlin said Thursday at a FedEx/USO event to pack 2,500 care packages for service members overseas. “We meet often. We talk a lot, often about the business side of things and the challenges that we face in the future.
“To us, it’s blatantly obvious how we can improve this sport as a whole, which will then make our business better, and we just would love to see those changes implemented.”
Hamlin noted that he and Marks recently had lunch with Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, which owns nine tracks that host 13 of the 36 points races on the Cup schedule. Among the tracks Speedway Motorsports owns is Charlotte Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin and Marks took different routes to ownership. Hamlin and Jordan started a team and partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing. Marks imbedded his group with Richard Childress Racing before purchasing Chip Ganassi Racing and absorbing most of the Ganassi employees.
Working together, Hamlin and Marks form the nucleus of new owners who are outspoken about the need to change the sport’s financial model and not rely as much on sponsorship dollars. They hope teams can get a bigger share of the TV money. Tracks get 65% of the TV money, teams gets 25% and NASCAR gets 10%.
“I think the teams have not been quiet about the fact that the more help that we can get from a revenue standpoint from the league, the more secure it’s going to make our businesses,” Marks told NBC Sports. “It’s going to give us the opportunity to grow and scale our businesses, instead of just being out there trying to get sponsorship to get to the racetrack and that’s it.
“I don’t know what that path looks like yet. I know there’s better communication and more mutual understanding than I think there probably has been in a long time, if ever, but, at the end of the day, NASCAR is going to have to be incentivized to help the teams financially. They’re going to have to feel like it’s in their best interest to grow the sport to do that.”
That’s the point Hamlin made Thursday.
“We want to make it better by collaborating with our TV partners, track partners and NASCAR,” he said. “If we start working together, we will grow this into a big, big business. Unfortunately, everyone is just kind of fighting for their own personal goals, and I think it just keeps our sport stagnated at times.”
Hamlin said he’s focused on helping lead teams to a brighter future.
“I’m working very, very hard to help promote change in the sport for the better, the greater good,” he said. “I’m doing my part. I want to leave this sport in a better place than it was when I got in here. I think I’ve invested enough and am informed enough to have an opinion on some of the topics that we talk about.”
3. Hard contact
While aspects of the new car are safer than last year’s version, Joey Logano notes that the impacts still can be hard.
Logano explained this week on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio what crashes are like in the new car.
“We’ve been going through the safety of this car since it started to get designed and when we started driving it,” he said. “Now that we’re driving it, experiencing crashes firsthand. I think there’s just no doubt in my mind the intrusion piece of the car is significantly better than the old car.
“There’s also no doubt in my mind that when you hit the wall in this car, it hurts way more than the old car. There is no doubt. These things are solid. They’re tanks. You can look at the chassis, and you can figure it out pretty easily.
“It’s going to take, I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it would take a pretty serious impact for any intrusion into the car, into the cockpit area, which is great because ultimately those are the things that should have almost killed Ryan Newman (at Daytona in 2020). I got too close to it at Talladega. Those issues are real.
“I believe they are very much improved with this car, but I think the everyday hit is definitely more solid, and you feel it a lot more with this thing. We’re all learning as we go along here in what we can do to improve those things.
“The little slaps against the fence that may not look that big, (but) you feel them way more than we used to for sure.”
4. Different role
This weekend will mark the first of four races crew chief Chris Gabehart will miss because of a wheel coming off Denny Hamlin’s car at Dover. Gabehart and two pit crew members begin this suspension this week after Joe Gibbs Racing lost an appeal.
While Gabehart will remain in communication with the team away from the track, his absence illustrates how things can change for teams when they have their crew chief suspended.
Engineer Sam McAulay will serve as Gabehart’s crew chief while Gabehart is out. That means more than just moving over a spot on the pit box. But it’s not new. McAulay filled in for Gabehart when Gabehart was suspended four races in 2020 a wheel coming off Hamlin’s car.
One key change will come during pit stops. In his role as engineer, McAulay comes down from the pit box and holds the air hose for the right front tire changer. It’s key for the person holding the hose to ensure it does not get tangled as the tire changer moves from the right side to the left side of the car.
McAulay won’t do that the next four weeks. Gabehart doesn’t leave the pit box during pit stops. Instead, Gabehart stays on the pit box to call Hamlin into the pit and clear Hamlin out of the pit stall. McAulay will do those duties. That means that the team will have another crew member handling the air hose.
Another thing that will be different is that McAulay often monitors radio channels of multiple teams during the race. He says he’ll likely monitor the NASCAR radio channel during the races as interim crew chief and possibly only one team.
There’s more that will change, leading engineer Ryan Bowers to take over additional duties on the pit box. McAulay said he’ll still look at the data but that Bowers will handle more of those duties while McAulay focuses more on the race.
One thing that is not expected to change relates to fuel mileage. Bowers will remain the main person overseeing fuel mileage. McAulay will continue to check the fuel mileage numbers.
“We’re going to miss (Gabehart), for sure,” McAulay said. “The main thing is just thinking through all of the little things that people do during the race and making sure that we have those covered when we start moving positions around.”
5. Recommended is more than a recommendation
So states a line in this week’s Goodyear press release. With the recent issues with tires, one cause hypothesized has been that teams have their tires below the recommended tire pressure from Goodyear.
In this week’s release, Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, states: “What we’ve seen play out at recent Cup race weekends is exactly what we saw in testing in preparation for this season with the Next Gen car. The balance of the Next Gen car is definitely shifted towards the rear of the car.
“We have been working with the teams, not only at the track over the course of race weekends, but also providing them data in advance that speaks to this, and what the tire needs to operate with regards to both camber and inflation, both of which are critical elements of the set-up.
“Teams, as they always do, are constantly working on their cars to make them better as the season progresses. We have seen this, and worked with them as they try to maximize the use of all corners of the car. Teams will, naturally, strive to make their cars faster and many have found the edge over the past several points races. Our working in conjunction with them will help maintain guidelines on tire set-ups as the Next Gen car continues to evolve.”