Friday 5: Is more practice a path to reducing cautions in Cup races?

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Brad Keselowski says that with what RFK Racing spends on simulation, he’d rather have NASCAR expand practice each weekend.

Keselowski also notes that extra practice would help teams learn the nuances of the Next Gen car. The more track time, the more teams could adjust and possibly reduce the chance for accidents.

The Cup Series has seen a 72.7% increase in number of cautions for accidents and spins in races this season compared to last year through the first 15 events.

There have been so many cautions this year that six races (40%) saw the winner not need to make a green flag pit stop. That includes the Coca-Cola 600, which had 18 cautions — 14 for accidents and spins — after having four cautions (one for an incident) last year.

“I think Cup racing had really matured to the point where we were going to racetracks and having zero cautions and nothing was happening,” said Keselowski, who is in his first year as co-owner of RFK Racing. “Now we can’t run more than 20 or 30 laps wherever we go. There has got to be a happy spot in the middle. 

“A full tire run is good every once in a while. … I think a lot of that stuff is a product of not getting the practice to get the cars right and being so reliant on all these other engineering tools that candidly are never going to be 100% accurate.”

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman, who ran his first race in the Next Gen car last weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway, noted how different the new car is for a driver compared to last year’s model.

“This is entirely different,” Kligerman said on MotorMouths this week on Peacock. “Throw away everything I’ve known for the last decade about driving stock cars and sort of just reset, start anew, and now I have got to figure out ‘How do you drive this thing?’

“It just has changed everything. It has an entirely different feel. It has times where it has an entire lack of feel that you have to deal with. The aero effects are entirely different than anything we’ve experienced. 

“The amount of shifting you’re doing is different  The brakes are different. The way you feel the tire and actually how just you sense speed and create speed and where the grip is is entirely different. 

“Someone asked me to sort of relate it this past weekend. I was like, it would be like the NFL suddenly deciding that instead of having the football-shaped football that they’ve had for the last … ever, they would start playing with a soccer ball. That’s how different it is.”

That’s why Keselowski said it is better to have more practice.

Practice was reduced as a cost-saving move for teams. With so little practice most weekends, teams don’t have to have a fully prepared backup car. Some multi-car organizations do not bring a backup car for each of their teams. 

That has created the reliance on simulation tools for teams to be fast immediately. 

Only six of the 36 points races have practices longer than 20 minutes this season. Those tracks with 50-minute practice sessions: Daytona (500), Atlanta (in March), Bristol Dirt, Gateway, Nashville and Phoenix (championship weekend).

“I think we’ve probably saved a million or two in travel and spent it all back in simulation and engineering to try to unload at the racetracks and not blow out tires and still be fast, and arguably that’s not working for anybody,” Keselowski said, noting the money saved in travel with shorter weekends for Cup and less practice.

“It’s definitely time for a deep dive and look back at the weekend schedules and the practice and qualifying formats.”

Corey LaJoie, who crashed in practice before the Coca-Cola 600 and crashed a backup in the race after left rear tire failures, said he doesn’t think more practice time is best.

“If we had more practice, I could have popped another one in practice,” he said last weekend. “Obviously, whatever we had at Charlotte wasn’t the hot ticket. 

“I think you’re going to have, whether it’s 50 minutes of practice like we saw here at Gateway, or it’s a 20-minute session like we saw at Charlotte, the same issues are going to arise. What you come up with (at Gateway) with the setup is what you’re essentially married to, whether you have five minutes of practice, no practice or an hour long.”

2. Seeking change 

Kyle Busch, Tyler Reddick and Austin Cindric are scheduled to take part in a Goodyear tire test June 21-22 at Martinsville Speedway. 

After what was a lackluster Martinsville race in the spring, this will be a key test. It will give NASCAR and Goodyear the chance to try some things with the car before an organizational test there in August. 

“This car is worse in traffic than the previous car,” Busch said last weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway. “I feel like all of the underbody stuff is not at all what we anticipated it to be. The cars drive fun. They are good. The pleasant part of it is that they drive good when they are by themselves, and they have full air. 

“If what we were striving to do was to be better with cars in traffic, we did not do that. That’s kind what I feel like has been the biggest struggle in myself and around my team is some of that, so what do you do to fix that? I don’t know. 

“I think there is a Martinsville test in the next week or two and I’ve been highly politicking to take all of the underbody off and let us go make a couple of runs with that and see what we can figure out with that. It would also save the team owners a heck of a lot of money if we trashed those components and went on without them from here on it. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings.”

3. Safety work

Brad Keselowski says he has concerns with how quickly safety officials turned RFK Racing teammate Chris Buescher’s car back on its wheels after it landed upside down in last month’s Coca-Cola 600. Buescher was not injured after his car rolled more than four times.

From the time Buescher’s car came to rest upside down to when it was put back on its wheels and Buescher climbed out of the car was 6 minutes, 30 seconds. Safety trucks arrived on the scene 10 seconds after the car came to rest. A safety worker reached the driver’s side of Buescher’s car 20 seconds after the car came to rest.

“I definitely have concerns,” Keselowski said. “If there was something wrong with the car, maybe they would have gone faster, maybe they would’t have. I can’t say I was on site to know all the contact that was had with Chris (by safety crews). 

“Either way I would like it to be a lot faster when it comes to that, for sure.”

NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600
Safety crews attend to Chris Buescher after his car landed upside down during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, addressed Keselowski’s concerns this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“Everybody always thinks that things should happen faster,” Miller said. “There’s definitely protocols in place. When the doctor arrives on the scene, the doctor is in control of the scene, and everybody else on site — like the track workers that flipped the car back over and all those — they’re on hold until they receive direction from the doctor on the ground. 

“This is a new car and certainly some different protocols and methodology for turning one back over. We’ve certainly practiced it and knew where the straps needed to be and knew how to do that. 

“That’s the first time we’ve turned a Next Gen car back over in the heat of the moment. I think they did a really good job of doing that safely. 

“Again, we don’t want to hurry and make a situation worse. We’re always learning from all of that, and I think everybody is going to think that if we get there in 30 seconds, that’s too slow. If we get there in 20 seconds, that’s too slow. If we get there in 10 seconds … We always try to make it faster. We’re going to get these questions on the response time in every single crash and we know that.”

4. Plenty of time

Kevin Harvick goes into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway (4 p.m. ET on FS1), outside a playoff spot. He is two points behind Tyler Reddick for what would be the final spot. Aric Almirola is eight points ahead of Harvick.

Harvick had been in a playoff spot last weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway until he crashed in the final laps of the race and finished 33rd. He was running 13th just before his incident. 

He was asked about being in the race for the final playoff spot last weekend before the event and if he started talking with crew chief Rodney Childers about strategies to collect as many points as possible.

“Just tell me where I am at the end of 26 (races),” Harvick said. “If we are in, we are in. If we are out, we are out. We are either good enough or not good enough. I have so much other stuff to think about to try helping with the cars and going to different places every week that you can’t really count points.”

There will be 10 races left until the playoffs begin after Sonoma.

5. Busier schedules

Hendrick Motorsports’ recent promotions of senior executives included Jeff Andrews becoming president and general manager. He had been executive vice president and general manager.

His duties will expand with his new role. Andrews and Chad Knaus, vice president of competition, typically trade off weekends at the track. While Andrews was at World Wide Technology Raceway last weekend, Knaus was in France as part of Hendrick’s involvement with the Next Gen car for next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

A specially modified Next Gen car will be the “Garage 56” entry, competing in its own group at Le Mans. It will mark the most notable presence by NASCAR at Le Mans since 1976.

With the extra duties for Andrews and the Le Mans project for Knaus, will someone else have to pick up their duties with the Cup operation?

“Chad and I have discussed that briefly,” Andrews said. “ … There will be some of what I was doing that I will have to push off to him.

“Likewise, I hope I can do the same. I hope I can take some things that are high on his priority list that he needs to make some decisions on to help guide and direct the competition side of our company that I can do to get in place for him that makes his role better. 

“He’s been in that role almost two years and … he’s done an amazing job. Our crew chiefs and race teams are working better and closer than they ever have before. I think the difficult thing for Chad, as he’s grown into that role, is to figure out and understand how to kind of step back a little bit and watch and guide those race teams and not be someone who is directly involved with that one car. 

“He’s done a tremendous job. I’ll tell you the quality of our race cars is unprecedented what’s coming out of our shops right now and that is a testament to Chad and his level of detail.”

Hendrick Motorsports has won five of the first 15 Cup races this season. William Byron has two wins. Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott have one win each.