The playoffs are here. Sunday’s Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN) kicks off the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series postseason. It’s the first time ever that the Darlington (SC) Raceway will play host to a playoff race. While 2020 has been far from normal, this weekend could be a start of the drivers and teams feeling back to themselves again.
See, from May 17 on, nothing about what we’ve done in the NASCAR world resembled anything close to normal. The schedule didn’t look anything like we’ve ever had it before. Weeknight races. Doubleheaders. New dates. It was vastly different.
On top of that, we had qualifying just once (May 24) for the Coca-Cola 600 and no practice activity whatsoever. We won’t have either for the 10 postseason races either.
Fans have come at some venues, albeit in a limited capacity, but not able to come through the gates at others.
Now, it’s time to ratchet it up for playoff time. 16 drivers. 3 rounds. 10 weeks. 10 races. 10 tracks. 1 champion.
But, where this could get back to a normal is, eight of the 10 tracks on the playoff schedule have hosted a race this season. So, while there’s no practice on tap, these teams still have data from a past race this year.
I mean this will be the third race at Darlington for crying out loud.
For a team like Team Penske, this is big. Same for Kyle Busch. All of their results have faded over the course of the season but that’s due to the pandemic. For Penske, prior to the 2020 season starting, they swapped out all three Cup teams. The only thing that remained the same was the drivers, their car numbers and their spotter. Brad Keselowski kept the No. 2, but he inherited Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 team. Blaney’s No. 12 team shifted to Joey Logano’s No. 22 team while Logano took over Keselowski’s team.
So, with practice and qualifying for the first four races, Logano won twice. Blaney should have had three runner-up finishes and Keselowski was solid. But, once the pandemic hit and we got back going again in May, the speed tapered off. Blaney, started off with six top four finishes in the first nine races back, but he’s had just one top five in the last 13 races since.
Logano only had one top five and four total top 10’s in the first 13 races. Keselowski, was really their only mainstay.
Logano and Blaney had to learn their crew chiefs and their crew chiefs had to learn them. They no longer had the luxury of having three practice sessions to figure it out. It was show up at the track and just race. So, while they’ve all been to these tracks before, they just haven’t been to them together.
“With no practice, you’re relying on previous race notes,” Blaney said. “Working with Jeremy (Bullins) for a long time from Xfinity to Cup then the transition to Todd (Gordon), the first month was awesome. You get to work with them full weekends. We get to see each other every single weekend and throughout the week. I mean everybody on the team. You get to learn each other. Now, it’s just been so limited. No practice and you can only talk so much on the phone throughout the week. It’s been different. We’ve done the best we can.
“I think it’s kind of neat when you switch crew chiefs for the first time, I mean when I was with Jeremy you kind of get locked into one mode. I mean we had our own language with each other. I know what he likes to change. He knows what I like as a driver. You kind of get in a certain mode whether it’s good or bad and not be open to a new kind of things. I know the biggest thing I learned when I switch to Todd is that everyone approaches things kind of differently. It just opened my minds things that we can try. It’s just knowledge of two different minds from two different guys.”
Logano, has since turned it back on which makes it seem he and Paul Wolfe have figured it out.
Now, they go to these track with data. Isn’t that an advantage now?
Where this could get tricky though is, if you were good the first visit to these tracks, you would think you can show up with what you had last time out. The problem is, the ones that were bad or had iffy handling race cars, well you know changes are going to be made. Will those changes make them better than the cars that had the top finishing spots before?
Busch’s main thing he kept saying was they missed practice. He felt like the doubleheaders that he’d be better in because they had a full race of data prior. Now, he has eight tracks of data for this year. They can make changes to make them competitive again.
He says that the data from those tracks are definitely useful, but it is the same for all 16 playoff drivers too, so they have to be smart.
If he rises, someone has to fall. That means those that were already good, they’d have to adjust too. Do they adjust the wrong way? They don’t know because there’s no practice time, remember?
For those that struggled earlier, the only way to go is up. For those that were good, the only way to go is down, unless they find something to keep them stagnant up top.
That’s what’s going to make these playoffs so fun to see who has it figured out or not. Also, with cutoff races at Bristol, the Charlotte ROVAL and Martinsville, expect chaos in a good way.
“There was a damn crowd there last weekend,” Clint Bowyer said of Daytona. “It was a shot in the arm for the sport and a breath of fresh air for everybody involved. I was across the street at Bass Pro Shops and it was like ‘yes we’re back. This what getting close to what normalcy is.’ I’m excited about that.”