It’s another example of the new normal – at least for now: elimination of practice and qualifying for most NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck races due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
While most crew chiefs might like to keep practice and qualifying to optimally set up cars for race day, some drivers seem to be of the opposite mindset.
“From a driver standpoint, I personally like it like a lot of (drivers) because I feel it puts a little more in the driver’s hands because everybody starts off on an even playing field, nobody’s car is going to drive perfectly, you have to figure it out and adapt,” Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe said during a Thursday media conference call. “It’s super important for the crew chief and team to unload somewhat close because you have to still be close, you can’t be way off in left field and still make something happen.
“But yeah, I think we could definitely limit practice. Looking back on it, if I was a rookie and at a place like Darlington, it would be tough to just start the race and figure it out. I think 15-20 minutes, maybe, of practice, just enough to make sure your travels are set, and you’re not going to bottom out or anything crazy. And then the drivers get at least a look at the track and just shake everything down.
“Maybe that’s a potential thing we can do down the road to shorten practice. … It takes me back to my dirt racing days where you show up, you get two laps (of practice) and you’re racing. I’ve enjoyed it, I feel like it’s been good for our team because we’re typically pretty close in practice as it is, so it’s been good for us.”
Veteran drivers like reigning Truck Series champ Matt Crafton also likes the run-what-you-brung aspect.
“It’s interesting how we’ve done this, like with Charlotte, we went with what we’ve known and what we’ve ran with the last couple years, and the baseline setup and what we ended up with and started from there,” Crafton said in the teleconference. “I think it’s a lot harder for some of the rookies that don’t have a whole lot of notebook to lean on.
“It’s a good thing for the veterans to have more of a notebook, but I love it (no practice or qualifying), to be honest. It’s kind of a cool thing that we’re doing with no practice. The last time we did that was at Kentucky (2015) and I actually won the race because it was rained out practice and qualifying. Under the circumstances we’re going through right now, I’m glad at least we’re racing.”
Fellow Truck Series driver Zane Smith, who earned a career-best third-place finish last week at Charlotte, said not having practice is “100% absolutely” a disadvantage for rookie drivers not to have practice or qualifying – but he’s also quickly learned to adapt.
“This deal kind of sucks for me, but I’ve always kind of liked where you line ‘em up and race,” Smith said. “It’s kind of like you’ve got what you’ve got and figure out as soon as you can.
“That’s what I did in Charlotte. … I tested at Atlanta not too long ago and that was my first time on a mile-and-a-half in a truck. But racing a truck and driving a truck are two entirely different things.”
Still, Smith found a bit of humor about racing Saturday at Atlanta without practice and qualifying.
“I can’t wait to see my heart rate right after Stage 1,” Smith, who turns 21 next Tuesday, said with a chuckle. “I have this Apple Watch and it tracks all that and it’s kind of cool to see after the race.
“I could tell I was out of breath after Stage 1 (last week at Charlotte) from starting near the back and coming to the front. But at least this time, I think I’ll start top 10 because they changed the points deal, so that’ll make my job a lot easier – I hope.”
William Byron had a terrible experience in his first Coca-Cola 600, crashing a third of the way through and finishing next-to-last in the 2018 race.
His sophomore effort was significantly better: He started on the pole and finished ninth.
He’s looking for a similar, if not better, result in Sunday’s 600.
“It takes a lot of patience, a lot of adjustments, a lot of pit stops, things like that, so you just have to progress your way through the event,” Byron said.
Byron said he feels fine from the first two Darlington races this past Sunday and Wednesday, when he drove a combined 487 laps around the 1.366-mile track — the equivalent of 665 miles, 65 miles longer than the scheduled 600 miles he’ll run Sunday.
Byron acknowledged that he and crew chief Chad Knaus will have to improve long-run speed, which was a problem at times in the two races at Darlington.
He finished 35th there last Sunday due to a loose wheel, but rebounded to a 12th-place finish on Wednesday.
“We had some issues to work through in the Wednesday race that we didn’t really figure out until after the race, so that was kind of is what it is,” Byron said. “But the Sunday race, we had a really good car and obviously had the misfortune there with the loose wheel.
“(Darlington was) kind of a mixed bag. We weren’t as good on Wednesday, but I think we know why and we just have to work towards getting ready for the 600. We just have to try to carry over what we’ve been doing speed-wise at HMS.
“We’ve had some really good cars this year. We just have to put together solid races and have good execution. It sounds kind of boring and simple, but it’s really what it comes down to. Hopefully we’ll get to the end of the race and have the opportunity.”
In addition to hosting the 600, Charlotte Motor Speedway also will hold another Cup race Wednesday that will be 312 miles.
“You’re going to have a different feel just because of the ability everybody has, not just the driver’s ability, but the team’s ability to learn from the previous race and get better,” Byron said. “I guarantee you’ll probably have five or six guys that run well in one race that won’t run well in the other, or a new player that’s a dominant factor in each race is probably going to be different.
“I think you saw that at Darlington. Obviously, some of the players were the same at the front, but there were some different.
“So, I think that’s going to continue with these doubleheader type races where you have a couple of days to go back, review what happened, what went well, what didn’t go so well and make adjustments to your car or make adjustments as a driver to get better.”
It was supposed to be fun, but some of the hostilities between drivers during the Pro Invitational iRacing series could carry over to the track, some competitors say.
“I really, truly think a lot of these drivers, myself included, are going to be carrying grudges from the iRacing world over into the real world,” Tyler Reddick told NBC Sports. “I really do.
“I may just be the one crazy one, but how I’ve been raced on iRacing and unfortunately, probably not always on purpose, how I’ve raced others, is probably going to carry over as well. That’s just something you’ve got to think about.”
That virtual racing could elicit such feelings from drivers might surprise some.
Maybe it shouldn’t.
“We’re all very competitive,” Reddick said of the drivers. “Whenever we feel like someone does something wrong to us, it sticks with you, regardless of if it was on the highway or if it was in the grocery store or the parking lot.”
After a 71-day break due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cup drivers are back on track Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX). They’ll have no practice or qualifying. Their first lap at speed will be when the green flag waves. And fuel some of those restless drivers with memories of what others did to them in virtual racing the past two months. Then see what happens.
Every time a driver competes against another, whether in the virtual or real world, they add to their notes on that foe. Each slight is catalogued for potential payback.
“It could be another thing in your notebook that you carry over and remember about this guy like that,” Matt DiBenedetto told NBC Sports on what could carry over from iRacing. “Like Ryan Preece and I. You’re not going to go crash each other, and we joked a little bit about it after. But it’s also like, man, I’ve been frustrated with him a couple of times on track before, maybe not using his brain like I think he should have. And then that’s another note in the notebook when you’re racing around him.”
During the iRacing race at virtual Richmond Raceway in April, DiBenedetto and Ryan Preece had contact that wrecked Preece. He returned the favor. DiBenedetto retaliated. iRacing officials parked DiBenedetto.
That isn’t the only iRacing incident that quickly comes to mind for DiBenedetto that is bothersome.
“At (virtual) Dover at the last race, just trying to be smart, and I checked up for a couple of guys in front of me, Jimmie (Johnson) and Kurt (Busch),” DiBenedetto said. “They got stacked up a little, so I check up some and Ross Chastain is behind me. He tries to use it as an opportunity to dive under me. He drives right through me and crashed me.
“Well, again, that’s another one in the notebook. Everybody knows that Ross is insanely aggressive, has a bunch of talent but still has some things to learn as far as patience.
“From iRacing to that, yes, it can still put things down in your notebook that you remember about that guy. It was funny to see that some of those guys, for example Ross, not picking on him, he’s a talented guy, but those characteristics were the same on iRacing as in real life.
“Then you would have Kevin Harvick that was out there being very smart and giving room and all that. I’m like yep, that’s Kevin. You could see that Kevin may not be as experienced in iRacing, but he was the same as in real life, giving some room and being real smart about what he was doing and not trying to crash people.”
But not every driver thinks what happened in iRacing will make an impact on the track.
“iRacing it’s not real,” Christopher Bell told NBC Sports. “It’s not real money going into the cars. It’s not real resources going into the car. At least from my end, nothing from that will carry over.”
What about other drivers?
“I would hope not,” he said.
2.Heated discussions during a pandemic
After 400 miles Sunday at Darlington, some drivers will be upset with fellow competitors.
In normal times, a driver might seek another on pit road to apologize to them. Or confront them.
Some discussions end peacefully. Others escalate, as happened last October between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin at Martinsville. In some cases, not much is said before drivers tussle, as Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick did after last October’s Xfinity race at Kansas. In rare cases, no words are spoken. Only a punch is thrown, as Kyle Busch did to Logano after the 2017 Las Vegas race.
But with social distancing guidelines, what is the protocol for drivers in such matters after a race?
Will they stand 6 feet away and yell at each other? Will they stand much closer to argue and risk being fined as much as $50,000 for violating NASCAR’s COVID-19 guidelines? Or do they go back to their motorhome and text each other?
“I don’t think you really know until that moment happens,” Brad Keselowski told NBC Sports.
Matt DiBenedetto knows what he’d prefer to do.
“I’ve always been the guy to where I want to talk to that guy right now as soon as I get out of my race car and settle this immediately — and it’s not necessarily about any physical harm or anything,” he said. “I want to talk to this guy face-to-face right now and let him know that, hey, I mean business and I’m not going to tolerate this. I’ve always been a very stern guy. I try to give respect to everybody, and you want to get that respect as well.
“That (post-race scenario on pit road now) will actually be a weird one. I thought about that, if I want to address something with somebody. I don’t like doing it over texts. I only like face-to-face conversations because in a text message, things can get misconstrued.”
Denny Hamlin has a possible solution to having an issue with another driver.
“Meet them at the exit,” he joked.
“That’s the only thing I can think of. I don’t know. I actually thought about that, as well. If there’s ever a time to be aggressive, probably ruffle some feathers, this is probably the time to do it because you don’t have to face consequences right after the race.”
3. “Epic race”
Drivers have raced without practicing or qualifying before. It last happened at Indianapolis in 2018.
But that race can’t compare to the challenges drivers will face Sunday at Darlington after a 10-week layoff and temperatures expected to be near 90 degrees.
“It’s going to be a daunting challenge this week,” said Brad Keselowski, who won that 2018 Indy race and starts Sunday’s race on the pole. “There’s no doubt about it. I think it’s an opportunity for a team to rise to the top, so I’m cool with it.
“It’s going to be incredibly hot. South Carolina is another level of hot. I don’t know why South Carolina hot is hotter than hot everywhere else, but it just is.
“Then you’ve got the racetrack, one of the faster racetracks on the circuit. You’re right up against the wall, very little room for error. You have tires that wear out a lot. You get late in a run and you’re really sliding around, a huge opportunity to make a mistake. You’ve (also) got all the downtime for the drivers (since the last race). Perhaps even more dangerous than that is a lot of time spent on simulators, so an abundance of overconfidence, which always causes issues.
“No practice. No rubber on the track. You have an entire list here of reasons why this race (could) be a calamity. A lot of pressure in this race. You want to get back going and have a great race. There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this race, so you expect the pressures that come with that. This is going to be an epic race. There’s no way around that. That’s what NASCAR needs, an epic race.”
Add to the list of issues for drivers Sunday is that with no practice, they won’t have a chance to practice entering pit road. Darlington’s pit road entry is tricky. Keselowski missed pit road while running seventh in last year’s race. Ryan Blaney missed pit road in the 2017 race there after hitting the wall. Denny Hamlin missed pit road while leading the 2017 race with 54 laps to go and rallied to win.
Even though Sunday’s race is 400 miles instead of the typical 500 miles at Darlington, there’s a likelihood of multiple green-flag pit stops. With the way tires wear, as soon as one prominent car pits for tires, it will drag the rest of the field to pit road for fresh tires. That can bring trouble.
“Darlington, in my opinion, is the most challenging pit road entry of the entire year,” Matt DiBenedetto said. “I think of all things, that might be one of the most nerve-racking parts of the race. Doing that cold turkey is a lot harder than just firing off for the green flag and racing.”
So what makes Darlington’s pit road entry so hard?
“Pit road entry there is so far down the racetrack,” DiBenedetto said. “So you enter the corner and you’re on the racetrack and you start slowing down. It feels like you have to park just to hang a really, really hard left and go way down across the apron where you can’t even see. You’re on the racetrack and you can’t even see the pit road entry. You’re going by more of marks on the racetrack.”
4. Picking teams
With NASCAR limiting the number of team members for upcoming races, crew chiefs and competition directors had to decide who will go to Darlington this weekend and who stays behind.
Typically, teams have 10 road crew members, which includes the crew chief and spotter.
NASCAR now limits teams to six road crew members, including the crew chief and spotter. So that left four spots. Nearly every team brought its car chief, leaving three spots.
Top teams each have two engineers. What to do with those engineers was a point of debate for some teams.
“We have deliberated on this quite extensively,” Kevin Kidd, competition director at Roush Fenway Racing, told NBC Sports.
Each of Roush’s two teams will take only one engineer to the track.
“The job on the pit box is a pretty busy one,” Kidd said. “To really just rely on the crew chief and quite frankly to have the bandwidth to process everything that you need to process live and in real time is probably asking too much. Can you support things from home and can you do things? Yes. And we will. … We feel like an engineer to assist the crew chief is a critical part of the race.”
Each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams will have one of its engineers at the track.
“I feel honestly, that the preparation at the shop is what’s going to really be the key,” said Chad Knaus, crew chief for William Byron. “So, we wanted to keep a good, strong, staff of mechanics at the shop with good and recent racetrack experience to try to make sure that when we unload the race car that we’re absolutely race ready.”
None of Joe Gibbs Racing’s teams will have an engineer at the track Sunday.
Crew chief Chris Gayle, who helped lead Erik Jones to the Southern 500 win at Darlington last year, said he wanted an extra mechanic at the track over an engineer.
“I wanted to make sure that I had enough (mechanics) so that if we had damage, we had the correct people who could work on things,” Gayle told NBC Sports. “I didn’t want to sacrifice that. … It pretty much left you where you didn’t have too many options.”
5. So many unknowns
Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I asked several competitors what they were curious about Sunday, whether it was on the track or off the track. Here’s what some said:
Kevin Harvick: “I think with all the meetings that I’ve been a part of at home and iRacing and the way that the teams are functioning, there’s going to be some things that come out of this situation that are permanent and what those things are will start this weekend. I don’t really know what it is or what they will be, but I think this weekend will be the start of a process that you kind of have to look around and say: ‘You know what? That wasn’t a bad idea. We did it out of necessity to go in this racetrack and race and put on a show, but is that something we can carry forward?’ And I think that question is going to be asked a lot as we do things going forward.”
Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson: “What I’m really curious to see is going to be the evolution of any given competitor throughout the race. … It’s going to be really curious if you see somebody unloads and is blazing fast for the opening run, the track takes rubber, things evolve and change for the behavior of the track. Maybe they don’t keep up with it as well. Does that same guy that is blazing fast end up 12th? Or do you have somebody that barely struggles to stay on the lead lap by the end of the first stage? Do they come in and make an extended pit stop … and then they end up third. That’s what I’m curious to see. … Given that we don’t have practice and given that there’s no qualifying and we don’t have time to really tune to the track for the given weekend, I’m curious to see that. That’s a challenge I’m really looking forward to.”
Cole Custer: “That first lap will be interesting to see how aggressive everybody will be. I think how the team, all of us kind of work together to get prepared for the race. Those are really the only two things. I think for me, I’ve been trying to just focus on what I’m preparing myself for, and I don’t really worry about everything else.”
Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie: “I’m curious who is going to be the first person to take their mask off and get a $10,000 fine. I pray that it’s nobody on our race team. It’s a new normal. It’s going to be a pain in the butt when you have a mask on your face and its 80 degrees and you’re trying to talk on the radio and it’s muffled. It’s going to take some getting used to, following NASCAR’s guidelines. We want to keep everybody safe. We don’t want to get anybody sick or anything like that. … I’m curious to see how everything is going to go, non-racing, everything affected by COVID-19. I think NASCAR has got a pretty good plan to get us in and out of there. It’s going to be interesting once you get there and see how it works.”
John Hunter Nemechek: “I’m curious about the viewership that we’re going to have. … I’m just kind of curious about the whole weekend, how it flows, how the racing goes.”
Brad Keselowski: “I think there are two things that really stand out me. One, the 88 car (of Alex Bowman) has been the best car on a mile-and-a-half (tracks). It left California as the fastest. It was probably the car that should have won Las Vegas. I’m curious if they have that speed (this weekend). I’m curious because I entered the season effectively with a new team, and we finished California with a top-five car and had a long list of areas that we thought we could to improve. I’m curious if we do just that this weekend at Darlington and find that level of speed like the 88 car had.”
“It all kind of came together Friday when we were home,” said T.J. Majors, spotter for Joey Logano, on the Twitch broadcast of the iRacing event, The Replacements 100. “Bryan Cook had the same idea as I did, Boris at JGR, and then Kevin Hamlin put a lot of work into this as well. … We started adding drivers to the list. A lot of fun. It’s unfortunate circumstances that we’re all home today, but we’re just trying to make the most of it and give people something to do and watch and have some fun.”
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As NASCAR entered its first weekend without racing on the track, Bristol Motor Speedway issued a statement Sunday afternoon. Part of the statement read:
“As these uncertain times unfold, we remain in constant contact with health officials, NASCAR and key stakeholders to continue to monitor this pandemic closely. … We must move forward preparing for our events, even if there’s a chance it might not happen, but know that we’re doing our part to enhance our cleaning efforts, locating additional handwashing for our fan zone areas and providing hand sanitizer around the property.”
Bristol is scheduled to host Cup, Xfinity and ARCA East on April 3-5.
“Large events and mass gatherings can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States via travelers who attend these events and introduce the virus to new communities. Examples of large events and mass gatherings include conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies. These events can be planned not only by organizations and communities but also by individuals.
Therefore, CDC, in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers (whether groups or individuals) cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States.”
Marcus Lemonis, from series sponsor Gander RV & Outdoors, added another $50,000 to Harvick’s bounty. Truck owner Chris Larsen pledged $50,000 to any Truck Series regular who could win a series race with Kyle Busch.
Suddenly, Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway became the most anticipated series event since the Trucks ran at Eldora Speedway for the first time in 2013.
With sports shut down, including NASCAR, for the foreseeable future because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saturday became a day of confusion. What to do with no racing and no sports.
“I’m sitting here at home on a Saturday. It feels weird,” Matt DiBenedetto said in a video to fans.
Texas Motor Speedway issued a statement Saturday that track officials are “currently preparing to host our regularly scheduled events and will continue consulting with officials on best practices and recommendations.”