Lack of practice still leveling the playing field in NASCAR, a deep in-depth look at this following talks with drivers

This past week is the one year anniversary of the sport world shutting down in wake of the COVID pandemic. One of the things though that was altered in order for NASCAR to get back going again was the lack of practice. None of the remaining 32 races of 2020 had any practice sessions. Just one, the Coca-Cola 600, had qualifying. That in turn is causing a lot of sleepless nights for crew chiefs.

That’s because you don’t have any on track work to be done during the race weekend’s anymore to get your cars dialed in. Normally, you can go through past notes and sim work to get a baseline setup to show up to race tracks with. Then, with 2-3 practice sessions given over the course of a normal race weekend in the past, you could alter that car to get it fully dialed in for the race after. Now, those past notes and sim work is all you have. If the track changed at all between visits, you could be toast.

Phoenix, is a track to where we go to twice a year. With last year’s spring race being before the pandemic and last year’s Fall race being during it, how much did the track change from March to November and how much do they anticipate it changing between 2020 and 2021?

“It’s all temperature driven,” Ryan Blaney told me. “I feel like this time of year in Phoenix and then in the Fall, it’s almost the same temperature. We’re getting there early enough in the year where it’s still fairly cool. I feel like in the Fall it’s the same way. It would be different if we were going there in August then we went back there for the championship race. It would be a different race track. But, it being the same temperature I think it pretty much puts on the same show.

“Then, with having multiple races there, I think with the Xfinity guys having this weekend and then we run after them, having 1 or 2 more races before ours in November that it rubbers the track in a little bit more so the only difference is we get to that VHT maybe a little bit quicker on Sunday’s race in the Fall than we would this weekend because the bottom is rubbered in a little bit more. I base tracks on temperatures and I think it’s going to be pretty similar.”

His Penske teammate of Joey Logano agreed. He doubled his laps led between March and November, but also doubled his finishing position too from 1st to 3rd too.

“I didn’t feel much different,” Logano said of his No. 22 Ford last March at Phoenix in comparison to last November. “The biggest thing that changes from time to time is how the PJ1 is applied to the racetrack. How, thick they lay it down, how it’s worked it. All those things kind of change the way the race goes.

“It seems like the temperature this time of year and when we go back in the Fall, it’s pretty close to the same. Not a whole bunch changes out there. It’s not like they go through a rough winter or anything like that where the track develops big new bumps where they went through a freeze. It doesn’t really happen out there. So it stays fairly consistent. Maybe a little bit more tire wear over time as the sun bakes on it, but not anything drastic.”

So, if the track stays similar as the case for Phoenix, wouldn’t that mean the same guys should be the ones to beat again? Well, Logano notes, not necessarily.

“You really end up setting car up similar to last year because you might change 1 or 2 things here and there, but without practice, how confident can you be coming off of something that was pretty decent, right?” Logano said to me on Friday morning. “If you weren’t very good, then it’s ‘okay we might as well try something different because we have nothing to lose.’ But, if you have a competitive race car, where you think  you can compete to win, it’s really hard to come off of that and say ‘boy we need to change 3 or 4 different things because this will make us better.’ Without trying it in practice I don’t know how confident I would feel in doing that.

“It’s a lot different these days where we used to say ‘what won last year won’t win this year.’ Well, that might be the case still but not as much as it used to be because you can really take yourself out of the running by really changing too much.”

Kevin Harvick is a prime example. He’s reached victory lane nine times in his career on the one-mile Arizona race track including a runner-up in last year’s spring race. It’s just that he’s not won on the track since they’re reconfigured it and is coming off of a 20th place finish last Sunday in Vegas, a place he used to be one of the best at.

“For me, Phoenix is a great example, you look back at the first race last year, and we had a chance to win the race and had the best car (finished second, led 67 laps). Then we go back for the second race and things didn’t go our way because it’s not what you expected (finished seventh, led no laps). That’s just part of what we do,” Harvick said.

“You guys, sometimes, see the results and look at it and say, ‘Oh, he’s gonna be this or that.’ Really, it’s just the same. It’s really no different. As you get into the meetings on Monday, the conversations may be different. But it’s the same routine week after week for me.”

Daniel Suarez is one of the guys that’s affected most by this. He’s with a new team. His new team has no data to fall back on from last year. They’re coming to the track just guessing right now.

“Listen, we’re still a new team,” Suarez said. “We have a lot of new people. We still dabbling in a lot of different areas on how to understand what we need, how to communicate how hard we should push the splitter.

“At this point of the season, I wish we were having at least a couple of practices. That would be the goal for our team right now because right now, the whole thing is brand new. We get to practice on the simulator, put our setup on the real car and go to a race track and hope for the best. If for some reason the simulator was off, we’re going to be off the rest of the day in the race and that’s exactly what happened in Las Vegas.

“Las Vegas I’m sure if we could make some adjustments to the car, we were going to be competitive similar like we were in Miami. But we didn’t have the chance to do that. We couldn’t change shocks or heights or stuff like that. It was one of those things that we’re just still learning. We’re building a notebook and learning from each other. I feel like my team has a lot of potential but we’re in the learning process at this point.”

Logano, says that he too wishes that they could get at least some sort of practice back to help work out these kinks.

“I miss practice. I miss qualifying. I miss everything that comes with it,” he said. “I don’t miss it every week. I miss working on the car and talking to the crew chief and engineers on how can we be better for the race. The moments when you go out there to qualify that your adrenaline is going so hard that you’re shaking after a lap because you’re pushing so much harder than you’re comfortable. I miss that feeling. We don’t need that every week but I miss some of that.”

I mean, given track time, most of the big teams have the resources to alter the car to ensure that they’re firing off on all cylinders from the drop of the green flag and have plenty of data from practice that weekend to stay ahead of any changes needed. Without practice now, they don’t have that luxury. It all come down to having the sim data entered right and adjusting that the sim data is just that, sim. It’s not real time or real life.

“Last week we were on the simulator for Homestead, same thing for this week for Vegas. It’s just not correlating close enough for us,” said Kyle Busch following a third place run Sunday in Las Vegas. “If we can get that better and closer, I feel like there’s something there.

“Off on balance to start. Got way better towards the end. Still there was room for improvement there at the end. Overall our speed was a little off. We weren’t going to keep up with the 5 or the 2. Definitely on restarts we could see that I was really slow, just getting attacked on by everybody, drove backwards. Took me a while to fight my way back up front, but that was our day.

“I mean, every track is different. Every week it seems to be close or far away, whatever. It’s interesting on how we can figure it all out.

“But, yeah, I mean, last year, once we lost practice and everything like that, we knew we weren’t going to go back to practice, we would go to the simulator every single week. I spent five hours there working on things, trying to get us the right balance that I feel like on a sim and a raceable one where I feel like I can drive the car a particular way that you need to drive it in the race on there, then in real life. It’s just not quite correlating between the two.

“This week we came to the racetrack super, super tight. I mean, eight numbers tighter on the racetrack than it was in sim. Typically when you’re good in sim, you’re about two numbers loose. I don’t know. That’s a 10-number difference, right? It’s just a big deal.

“I mean, a lot of it is tire. We have to figure out the tire model, and try to make what we think is right there. I don’t know, we’ll keep working on it. That’s the only tool we’ve got.”

Harvick, coming off of a 20th place finish last Sunday in Las Vegas agreed. He said that following a result like that, you have to look into everything to figure out what went wrong.

“You have to look at the things you did that led to this particular road,” Harvick said. “Is it your simulation? Is it the set-ups that your engineering group put in the race car? Did you do things right on the seven-post? Do you need to go into the wind tunnel?

“You have to try and tie all those pieces together. But Vegas in general, it’s a real balance between all those things from mechanical grip and aerodynamics and aerodynamic balance and bump stop loads and spring choices … It’s just a difficult race track to get all of those things right.”

Also, with a new car coming out in 2021, maybe most teams decided to forego some big money upgrades for this year and chose to refine what they previously had since the cars and setups wouldn’t change much between this year and last. That’s why we could see some wild racing then for even longer.

“It’s such a strange year. I think every company is a little different,” runner-up finisher last week in Brad Keselowski said. “Inside every company, the teams are a little different. I think there’s a fair amount of companies that have probably punted to NextGen, which is sensible. Then there’s some companies that have really doubled down on this year’s car, their team and lineup, which makes sense, too.

“To each their own. It’s hard to tell in the first three races who’s done what. I felt like all along Vegas was the clearest indicator of what we’re going to see for a lot of the season. Both of these races, Vegas and next week in Phoenix, I think they represent what it’s going to take to win the championship, being good on tracks of these two types.

“We can tell the most from these races.

“As far as teams that might be ahead or behind others, it’s still pretty early. Certainly cause for concern if you weren’t towards the front today.”

Martin Truex Jr. said sort of the same the week prior.

“The rules are the rules, and they haven’t changed in a while, and everybody is really just trying to work on the same things here each and every week,” said Truex Jr. “So it gives you time to work on your stuff and not have to really develop a lot of things. The smaller teams definitely get to catch up. Everybody has had all off-season to kind of work on our stuff and understand where they were last year and a lot of people obviously made some good decisions on how to get better. Yeah, definitely seeing a lot of guys running up front that we don’t normally see, but I think it’s just the box that we work in is so small and the longer we have the same rules package the closer everybody is going to get.”

Michael McDowell was 0-for-357 before his win last month. Christopher Bell was 0-for-38. William Byron went 0-for-97 before his first win came last year at Daytona and was 1-for-110 before his Homestead victory.

“I think one of the biggest things for us is there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of development, not new chassis, new parts, new pieces,” McDowell said. “We used to fall so far behind, but now I feel like we’re able to build on what we had in the past and make our cars a little bit better each time we come to the racetrack without changing all the fundamental pieces and kind of starting over and having to re-engineer everything.

“It’s kind of simplified the process for us a little bit just to keep building on what we have and try to make it better. But what an incredible run for our Front Row team. It’s so exciting to be a part of this organization. We’re really doing it, and it’s fun to be a part of it right now, and I’m so thankful that I get to drive it.

“I didn’t do anything different as far as me. I didn’t come with a different approach of how I was going to drive it. I just did what I normally did do, and we were fast. Really thankful we had a strong car.”

Truex and McDowell both think that the bigger teams will eventually come on though. So far, they’re doing just that.

“We’ll see if it continues,” he continued. “I still think the strong teams will end up being the teams to beat when all is said and done, and I feel like for us in particular on the 19 we’ve been really strong all year. We’ve been really fast. We had some tough breaks in Daytona and then we were in the hunt today. We’re feeling good about things and hopefully we can just continue to find some stuff to get better and keep running up front.”

McDowell agrees.

“It definitely has closed the gap, but the best teams and the top teams will always be the top teams,” he said. “They just consistently do it just a tad better. Pit road, execution, lighter, faster, more downforce. We’ll just take it as it goes.”

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