In a short-term schedule to return to racing without fans announced last week, NASCAR unveiled an ambitious plan of conducting seven events in 10 days, beginning with a 400-mile Cup Series race at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on May 17.
In total, there will be two Cup and one Xfinity race at Darlington and two Cup, one Xfinity and one Truck event at Charlotte Motor Speedway during that span.
But aside from a qualifying session for the May 24 Coca-Cola 600 Cup race at Charlotte, all the events will consist of only a race – no practices or qualifying and a few pace laps before the waving of the green flag.
That scenario has been done before in the case of race weekends hampered by bad weather but never as a regular course of business.
Remember, while numerous NASCAR drivers have participated in esports events over the last two months, no driver has taken a lap on an actual track since March 8 at Phoenix Raceway. The COVID-19 pandemic shutdown all major sports the next week.
“It’s going to be difficult,” said Hendrick Motorsports Cup driver William Byron, who earned his third victory Sunday in six events in the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series. “I think the biggest thing is just trying to prepare yourself well physically.
“Obviously, you’re not going to get that chance to really go through practice and kind of warm up your muscles, I guess you could say, to get ready in the car. Honestly, I’ve just been doing some training and trying to watch some old film of races at Darlington.
“With it being a daytime race, it’s going to be different as well. A lot of different variables there. The biggest thing is just being prepared. I’ve used iRacing to train me on the mental side, which I think has really helped me.”
But what about the physical toll of competing in multiple events over a short-time period – again, something rarely seen in typical NASCAR schedules?
Some drivers have indicated they may try to run on a local karting track (if it’s possible during the pandemic), in an attempt to replicate the physical toll of competitive racing.
“I think going to the karting track is something that's big on our priority list. Really, that's kind of why my iRacing structure this week might be a little different, just because of that,” Byron said. “That’s something that we use pretty heavily. Obviously, you can’t go get in any other race car.”
Aside from the physical challenges for drivers, the pressure on teams to have their cars in the absolute best condition for performance will be higher than ever.
While NASCAR does plan to incorporate “competition cautions” early in the events to allow teams to check tire wear and other systems, there is little to no room for error for a car that experiences a serious issue at the start of a race.
“When it comes to the racing, I’m honestly just very excited because it kind of goes back to your roots as a driver of when you show up and you race,” Byron said. “Maybe you have a few laps’ practice, but ultimately you get in the car and drive.
“I’m looking forward to that aspect of the race, not really being there for a long time, but just getting out there and driving. The result is going to be right there pretty quickly in front of you.”
Being successful at Darlington
As far as the competition itself, Byron expects teams that have a history of success at Darlington, will continue when racing resumes on May 17.
“A lot of it’s going to fall on the teams and the cars, who hits the set-up right,” Byron said. “It’s going to be big because there’s a lot of variables there. You’re not going to have a chance to set the height of the car, predict where the splitter is going to end up, where the back is going to travel to.
“As a driver all you can do is put consistent laps together. You have to be efficient in traffic at the start of the race. I do feel like there’s going to be some mistakes made, some bounces off the wall, things like that.
“You have to avoid that in the first run or so. Then you’ll start to see who really has the car after that.”