NASCAR Cup Series teams will run four races in 11 days beginning at Darlington, but the logistics aren’t as daunting as one might expect.
One of the variables helping the cause is the races are close to home. Most NASCAR teams are based in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, and Darlington Raceway is just over two hours away in South Carolina. Charlotte Motor Speedway is all but in every team’s backyard.
Secondly, both Darlington and Charlotte are intermediate tracks. That means teams can work with the cars they had been preparing for Atlanta and Homestead-Miami before the coronavirus pandemic forced the sport into hiatus.
However, there are still plenty of variables teams are going to be working through over the next two weeks. Those 11 days are broken down into two Cup Series races in four days at both Darlington and Charlotte.
“Fortunately for us, we had Atlanta and Homestead cars ready to go, so those were pretty easy to throw into the mix,” Greg Ives, crew chief for Alex Bowman, tells RACER. “But that’s only two cars, and you need four races, and just trying to figure all that out is difficult.
“Personnel-wise, I think we’re in a good spot not having to fly anybody or travel anywhere. That’s good. The size of the company we have, we maybe have a little bit of an advantage over some of the smaller teams that turn their cars around week to week or only have a couple cars. We’re fortunate to be in a situation through all this to have cars ready to go.”
Go Fas Racing general manager Mason St. Hilaire tells RACER the No. 32 team is also utilizing its Atlanta car for the first Darlington race. The second Darlington race could be where they use the Homestead car. For Charlotte, St. Hilaire’s group is putting another car together for the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24.
“Then we’ll follow up with the next Charlotte (race) and if that Darlington car that we went there the first time with just had a little damage on the right side, we put a right side on it, get it ready for the second Charlotte,” says St. Hilaire. “But if not, we have another car ready to go. We’ve planned four intermediate cars for four races.
“I’m always a ‘what’s the worst-case scenario that could happen?’ guy. What happens if we kill the car every race? Best-case scenario we come out of Darlington with a whole car and nothing wrong on it, we come back on Monday, service it, and put it back in rotation following Darlington. That’s an ideal situation to give us more breathing room. But if we were to kill a car every race, what would we do? So, we have a car for each one. Logistically it’s not that tough; it’s just fluid, like NASCAR says. Things change; you never know what might happen at any moment in time.”
Darlington isn’t the kindest track, with the preferred groove being up against the wall, leaving drivers on-edge lap after lap. There is a reason one of the most used terms when discussing the track is “Darlington Stripe.”
Even so, Clint Bowyer’s crew chief Johnny Klausmeier is planning on running the same car in both races. Should things go as planned in the Sunday race, Klausmeier sees an advantage in having everything already set with the car.
Part of the challenge at Wood Brothers Racing is that the No. 21 car is effectively a customer car of Team Penske. As such, crew chief Greg Erwin explained how the car turnaround cycle for Penske is not set up to handle having to prepare the number of cars four teams need for four races in 11 days.
“The first thing is, all the department managers at Penske have done a terrific job of realizing what the needs needed to be and re-allocating some people and resources to be able to crank those cars out of the system,” Erwin tells RACER. “We’re typically on a fairly long turnaround routine just because we’re so thorough with the car prep and whatnot. The good part of this is we had cars in the truck down in Atlanta that were done and ready to go, and it turns out to be a very similar spec of car that we’re going to take to Darlington. The Homestead car wasn’t too far behind it.
“We basically had two downforce cars ready to go. It’s not like we’re starting off with a short track and a road course or a speedway and a road course. The scheduling side of that, NASCAR being able to go to Darlington, really helped.”
Erwin’s approach is that the team is preparing for two races instead of four. Once they run one race at Darlington, they will be able to adjust for the second by what did and didn’t work. The same will apply to Charlotte.
Once the cars unload at Darlington and Charlotte, there won’t be much teams can do. Drivers will not get to shake down their machines because there is no practice and qualifying. Someone like Ives is not too stressed about it as he’s confident in the foundation his team has with their setup, given what they’ve accomplished with the 550 horsepower cars, which includes a win at Fontana in early March.
Ives also praises his driver, Bowman, for his feel for both Darlington and Charlotte. Granted, Ives still thinks about the opposite side of the spectrum of what he’ll need to do should they miss it at Darlington, but his outlook is mainly positive.
“Travels and that type of thing kind of come into play when you don’t have time on the racetrack,” says Ives. “If we’re going to a Bristol or Martinsville or Phoenix or Richmond, I’d have a little more anxiety just because we haven’t had that great setup there like we had maybe two years ago.”
Erwin says that having to go without practice or qualifying will change the first part of the race for his team. Erwin and Matt DiBenedetto started the season solidly with three top-13 finishes and sit ninth in the point standings, and like Ives, feel good about the intermediate tracks.
However, the No. 21 team usually shows up to the track with a car they feel comfortable starting the race with. As the weekend rolls on, they get more aggressive with changes like letting the car down lower, air pressure, and even camber. There is also what they see from tire wear.
“This situation here where we’re going to roll through tech and put them on the line, I think that probably handcuffs you a little bit in terms of how aggressive you might feel comfortable starting off,” says Erwin. “Not to say we wouldn’t make those changes after the first race at Darlington, but going to the first Darlington, we need to concentrate on having a good, solid return. I don’t want to be fighting tire problems or big fender rubs, anything like that, right off the truck.”