NASCAR heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend for one of the most prestigious races on the schedule — the Brickyard 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, IMS Radio Network). The 27th running of the race will once again be a one-day show. While the racing has been vastly improved because of these new formats that NASCAR was forced to create in order to race in the midst of a world wide pandemic, some in the NASCAR garage are actually hoping to alter some of these charges a bit for the future.
See, while everyone agrees and is happy with one-day shows, one wish that a majority of the NASCAR garage would actually like to have back is just a little bit of practice time. Right now, we’ve not had one single practice session since March 7. All 11 races back from the COVID-19 break, have been held without practice.
As we push forward, it doesn’t appear likely that we will see any additional track time outside of the races themselves until at the very soonest August.
Some drivers though, are happy about that.
“I’m all for no practice,” said Alex Bowman. “We’re supposed to be the best at what we do, so I don’t know that we need the amount of practice that we used to have on normal weekends. I’m enjoying the no practice thing and I’m ready to go.”
Brad Keselowski said at Charlotte, that NASCAR had his gold with these new formats.
“NASCAR in my opinion has hit gold with this format, Keselowski said in late May following the Alsco 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The limited practice, show up and race and the time window benefits both east and west coast. No qualifying, inversion is really good because it mixes the field up and creates some good storylines there.”
Kevin Harvick and his crew chief Rodney Childers think the no practice is an advantage for them due to their experience together.
“I think the experience of our team definitely plays a huge role, Harvick said. “I think the experience of our organization plays a bigger role.”
Childers echoes that sentiment.
“I will say I feel like for the 4 team it is an advantage to unload and not have practice and those things,” Childers continued. “Our history of our team has been unloading good and doing a great job at the racetrack of details, all that stuff.
“I think some of this, since we went back to racing, has been in our hands and our wheelhouse a little bit. Obviously with being able to win three of them, coming close to even more, that part shows.”
Denny Hamlin, who also has four wins this season is okay with no practice too.
Some others though, feel like they could use some practice to at least get their ships steered in the right direction because right now, they’re aimlessly heading towards deeper waters.
For example, last year’s champion, Kyle Busch, has yet to win a race in 2020. He’s riding a 15 race winless streak. A big reason to that though, is the lack of practice time.
“Joe (Gibbs) and I talked after Homestead and talked about Kyle (Busch) and we’re scratching our head a little bit,” said David Wilson, President of Toyota Racing Development. “You know, I’ll ad that I think a factor with Kyle and with everybody to varying degrees the fact that we’re not practicing. Now that’s not an excuse because none of us are practicing, so a lot of this is a measure of how well the teams, the OEMs can prepare and be ready to go racing. But if you know Kyle like we’ve come to know him, he’s not a driver that just straps into the car and goes.”
Fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr agrees with that assessment.
“I think it’s been a little bit tough not having practice and things like that to hit it right,” said the 2017 champion. “I think our cars are close. I don’t think we’re dominant. I think there’s some really fast cars out there that we’re trying to catch up to. We really have to do all the little things right to be able to put ourselves in position to win races, and we’ve done that. We’ve been in position a few times this season, and things didn’t go the way we needed them to, and when you’re not a dominant car, you’re not just going to blow by through the field when you have issues. We definitely know we need to get better.”
Truex, says that it’s hard on them to prepare for the races even because in the Coca-Cola 600, they dominated then came back a few days later and struggled to stay in the top 25.
“That’s just where the practice thing comes in,” Truex continued. “You go back to the racetrack with your best guess of what you think is going to work, and it’s not always what you think it’s going to be. You give a great driver and crew chief and engineer and team an hour to work on a race car, they’re going to get it better.”
Joey Logano also agrees. He says Darlington, like Charlotte, is a prime example on how you can have two races on the same race track but see differences in the two without practice for either.
“Some teams hit it and some teams completely miss it and you can’t really fix your car the way you want to until the race is over, and you can’t really do much about it once the race is over,” Logano said of the lack of practicing.
Logano also notes that with crew chief changes that were made this past offseason, it also makes it very difficult to land setups right for races too. He cited a perfect example. He and Paul Wolfe are in the first year of working together. With practice before the Duels in Daytona and the first four points paying races to follow, they won three of the five. In the nine races post COVID break, they’ve not yet won and have had just one top five finish in 11 tries.
“I look at coming out of the gates, especially the 22 car since I can speak to that the most since I drive that one, with Paul Wolfe and that whole team we came out of the gates super strong being able to win at Vegas and right after in Phoenix, getting a Duel win down in Daytona. We came out of the gates super strong,” Logano said.
“The challenging part of all to all of this is there’s no practice. That’s the challenging part of all of this with a new crew chief and trying to build that relationship up. What works and what doesn’t work?
“We’re going to these race tracks together for the first time. Although I’ve been there 100 times and he’s (Wolfe) been there 100 times, we’ve never been there together. We’re trying to put 2-in-2 together for what I like and what worked in the past with Brad (Keselowski) and that’s a tough combination to put together without practice.
“I think that’s why we came out of the gates so strong is since we had practice to get the car ready to go for the race. Some practice would be great at this point. There’s some questions that we’re definitely wanting to answer. This weekend kind of gives us that opportunity with a doubleheader.”
Fellow Ford driver in Chris Buescher agrees. He’s in his first season at Roush Fenway Racing and has a new crew chief in Luke Lambert. The lack of on track activity throughout a race weekend has hurt their pace as well.
In the first four races of the season, Buescher finished third in the Daytona 500 and was a top 15 car for much of the time. He had three top 15’s in the first four races and never finished worse than 17th.
In the 11 races post COVID-19 break, Buescher has seven finishes worse than 17th.
The Texas native said that they knew it was going to be difficult to start back up in May as basically a new team and without having the ability to practice or test, their No. 17 Ford’s pace would take a hit.
“That’s made it extremely difficult for us as a team trying to build chemistry and come together, so we’ve been put at a pretty serious disadvantage, and I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do in the last several weeks,” Buescher said last week.
“I feel like we should be stepping our game up every week going forward right now,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten a lot of the elementary stuff behind us that we had to learn as a group and being new with Luke Lambert leading the charge for the 17 group, for me not being able to go into the shop and be a lot more hands-on with everything has been very difficult.
“It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and pride myself in being able to know exactly what’s underneath our race cars, what’s going into it and how we’re going to be better. With this distance, it’s just made it difficult.”
Crew chief Greg Ives would also like to see a return to some practice too.
“I would like to see practice come back, just from the sense of I have some things I’d like to try to make the car better,” said Ives, the crew chief of Alex Bowman. “You can run as much simulation as possible, but getting it on the race track is the true test. The true feel from the driver and also the stopwatch.
“I would definitely like to do that being in the Playoffs. Usually this time is used for experimenting and finding that next tenth or two, which is so hard to find in this sport because of how close everything is with rules and the competition. I would like to have practice – not necessarily because I think it’s going to make the racing better on Sunday or easier for the guys in the shop. But I feel like from my standpoint, I go to tests to make my car better and as a crew chief, that’s what you want to be able to do. That’s what I would like to do – have a little bit more time on the track without actually racing.”
The major part of the no practice is so they can limit the amount of personnel at the race tracks as well as at the shops. If you have practice, you certainly have to have a backup car at the ready. That means more man hours and closer working conditions back at these race shops and more hands needed at the tracks themselves too.
“I think the one thing that backup cars cause issue with is the workforce in the shop,” Ives continued. “Just having to prepare two cars each week and do that without maybe all one hundred percent personnel in the shop. That tends to make for some long hours and you know what happens when people work long hours – they tend to get grumpy and we don’t want that to happen. This is a fun sport and enjoy what we love to do. Eliminating some of the mid-week races, the Wednesday races, helps that.
“But all-in-all, you just have to look at the pro of having practice versus what we’re doing already. I feel like what we have right now as a product on the race track is pretty good and that is without a backup car, without qualifying and without practice. I think for the short term, to continue on like this is probably the best way to go.”
NASCAR’s President Steve Phelps said too that he expects a return at some point to a more traditional race weekend, but also cautions that some of the current norms may be used more in the future as well.
“There are some things that we’ll look at both this year and the offseason,” said Phelps. “Typically, we practice three times. Do we need to practice three times? I don’t know. That is something we, as an industry, will determine.
“Having cars on racetracks, is that something that’s important with respect to a practice? Or isn’t it? Or frankly, do you have a better show when you don’t practice? And those are some of the things we need to look at.”