You have to hand it to NASCAR for the job it has done during the coronavirus pandemic in creating drama and excitement for a 2020 season.
It could have sat back, eliminated races, and attempted a shortened season. But NASCAR went the other way and thought outside of the box with getting the sport up and running live on network TV before any of the others.
When it became apparent that stops at the road courses in Sonoma, California, and Watkins Glen, New York, were not going to happen, they started creating new locations and dates to ensure a 36-race schedule could be completed. They had three updated schedules to accommodate how the coronavirus was faring in certain areas since they re-booted the season on May 17 at Darlington.
One of the modifications was to replace the road course dates with a road race somewhere else, which is how Sunday’s Go Bowling 235 at Daytona International Speedway’s 14-turn, 3.57-mile high-banked tri-oval/Infield road course came about.
NASCAR has never used the course for a race, although the 12-turn version is used every year for sports cars in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race.
We saw Charlotte Motor Speedway combine its infield layout with the high-bankings together, calling it a Roval the last two years. But Daytona is going to be a completely different story because it’s bigger and the banking is steeper at 31 degrees, which will help it be the fastest road course in the world. NASCAR will also be using its fastest race package with the engines that produce 750 horsepower. No restrictor-plates or no tapered spacer like we’ve seen used in 16 of the 21 races this season.
When NASCAR was finalizing the last schedule update, the race package to use for the Daytona road course was heavily debated. The 750 package was ultimately decided upon because the road course needs quicker response time with the throttle that the 550 package doesn’t offer. But to slow the cars down they added a chicane on the final stretch, turns 13 and 14, before the finish line. I have no idea what to expect but I can’t wait to find out. The speed is going to be insane.
Another element that will add to the excitement is that all the unknowns to the track’s layout make it twice as hard for “bubble” drivers trying to be one of the 16 drivers to qualify for the playoffs. Only four races remain until the playoffs start. After Sunday’s race, it’s off to Dover for a two-race weekend and then it’s back to Daytona for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
Two races at Daytona in August, who would have ever thought possible when the track has traditionally hosted events for two weeks in February and one weekend in July? NASCAR said why not? And so it is, just like that.
The first thing we have to do is understand what teams have done the best with the 750 package which has raced only five times this season, including the non-points All-Star Race at Bristol. If you look closely at the winners you’ll notice that the top winners on the season overall, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, don’t have any wins using it. Team Penske has three of the wins with Joey Logano (Phoenix) and Brad Keselowski (Bristol, New Hampshire) leading the way in performance. Martin Truex Jr.’s only win of the season came at Martinsville, and Chase Elliott won the All-Star Race.
A couple of notables that also performed well with this week’s race package is Penske’s Ryan Blaney and Clint Bowyer, both of whom have road course wins over their career.
The next thing we want to do is identify who the best drivers on road courses are. Not all road courses are the same and some vastly different changes in them can suit a driver on what to expect like the elevation changes at Sonoma or the long straights at Watkins Glen. And while many drivers have a skillset preferred for one of the roads over another, the basic fundamental of a driver turning right as well as left equally on a course is tougher for some to handle who are more comfortable running in circles.
It may not sound like a big deal, but the skill set gained is dependent mostly by who used to kart race on courses growing up against those starting on dirt or asphalt ovals.
Of course, some drivers have just made themselves better on roads working with tutors or road specialists as well as having great equipment. But a great road course driver can make up for gaps in competitive equipment just because he can properly time out how to approach a turn better than most.
Kyle Busch and Truex lead the way among active drivers with four Cup wins each on road courses. Elliott has three road wins and his 10.5 average finish is best among actives. Harvick has two wins, Jimmie Johnson, Hamlin, and Kurt Busch have one win along with Blaney and Bowyer. The interesting note about Bowyer and his 11.7 average on roads is that he leads actives with 12 top-fives on them.
Again, no practices or qualifying, but NASCAR did inject a start position rule beginning this week due to no qualifying that has a percentage figuring in how a driver did last week, points position, and a small portion dedicated to those that ran fastest single laps during the previous race.
NASCAR doesn’t sleep or wait for next year. When it’s ready for change, it just makes it happen. I’m liking the old cowboy way more and more during 2020.