Tyler Reddick hopes everyone in the NASCAR Cup Series field remembers there is no reset button when it comes to Turn 1, lap 1 at Darlington Raceway.
The Richard Childress Racing driver holds back a laugh when bringing up the frequently-used iRacing option when thinking about he and his peers diving off into the first corner at speed for the first time in over two months – without practice or qualifying beforehand.
“Guys, remember this is real life, OK? Don’t go in there and wreck the field,” says Reddick. “It’s going to be wild.”
All Joey Logano says is, “hang on.” The 2018 series champion admits he’s also been thinking about the start of Sunday’s race.
“I think there will be some drivers who take a conservative approach, and there’s going to be some who take advantage of that,” says Logano. “There’s also some who might be aggressive and bottom out on the splitter, and slide up the racetrack and tear the car up.
“Typically, when you start a race, you’ve had some form of practice or laps at that racetrack to have an idea of what your car is going to be like when you go green. No idea here, no clue what’s going to happen when we turn left, and obviously, it’s a racetrack with no run-off, so it’s not like you’re going to slide up and have an opportunity to catch (the car).”
Logano didn’t share what he might do, but Reddick didn’t hesitate about his plan.
“If I can get to the bottom of three-wide, I’m going for it,” he says. “I don’t care, I’ve got to pass people. But I think some people will be taking it cautiously because you’re putting a lot of faith into your sim program, and if it’s wrong, you’re going to find out in Turn 1 because I think that’s the highest load for the car with the high downforce package.
“It’s going to be wild. I think somebody is going to have an issue lap 1, Turn 1. I just hope it’s not right in front of me.”
Matt DiBenedetto thinks jumping back in without a practice or qualifying session will be fun, although that could be because the Wood Brothers Racing driver says he’s young and dumb.
“You can’t be scared,” says DiBenedetto. “There’s no time for that. Even with the initial start of the race and we’re cold turkey, because restarts are still huge and can dictate the rest of your race. So, you have to be super-aggressive and can’t be scared.”
A good word to use for what Darlington’s start will be is “interesting,” according to Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones. Since drivers haven’t been in their cars since March, and will have no practice to dial things in, Jones notes how they won’t know how it’s going to drive.
“Hopefully, we can make it through the first couple of laps and try to settle in and see where everything shakes out,” Jones says. “But it’s going to be exciting. Hopping in the car, going out there and making a few pace laps and going green is an interesting feeling. We’re all good at our jobs, but no matter how good you are, when you’re out of (the car) for that long, it’s going to take you a couple laps to get acclimated to what’s going on again.”
Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman has a slightly different view. To start, he points out that the 550 horsepower engine results in a “kind of slow” acceleration. With fresh tires on, those at the front of the field should be able to run wide open.
“I think it’ll be interesting when we get down into Turn 3, though,” he says. “It’s going to be different. I don’t know what it’s going to be like.”
The time between the March 8 race at Phoenix and the green flag at Darlington is two months, nine days. It is not the longest time drivers have been out of the cars. From the checkered flag at Homestead last year to the first practice of Speedweeks in Daytona was two months and 22 days.
But the difference is this time, drivers are only showing up for a race. There is no opening practice or Busch Clash to shake the cobwebs off. No Duel races or final practice. Add in that egg-shaped Darlington is not considered the easiest place to get around at the best of times. With an abrasive surface and little room for error running around the wall, the challenges are hiding in plain sight.
“Selfishly, I’m looking forward to it,” says Bowman. “I think the slick intermediate tracks are really the best places for us, so really looking forward to going to Darlington (with) just how good were in Fontana and how slick both those tracks are.”
A rookie like Cole Custer is going to learn as much as he can during the first part of the race before getting aggressive. Without practice to learn a track he will visit for the first time in a Cup car, it’s going to take time for him to work up to attack.
The first laps Matt Kenseth makes in the No. 42 for Chip Ganassi Racing are going to be the pace laps, followed by the green flag. Ryan Newman also doesn’t get any kind of warmup in returning to his Roush Fenway Racing Ford for the first time since Daytona.
Logano and crew chief Paul Wolfe are still new to each other and have not been to Darlington together. By only being able to compare notes, car preparation by the No. 22 team will be everything, says the driver. Logano is “cool” with showing up and hammer down, and thinks that could fall into his wheelhouse.
Reddick is also excited about Darlington from a personal standpoint. With a random draw to set the starting lineup, he is mindful that he could be in the middle of a storm “if somebody forgot how to drive over the course of a couple months, sitting in their house social-distancing.
“It’s going to be hot, slick,” he continues. “There is going to be shade up on my friend called the wall when the sun starts to go down, and it’s just going to be amazing.”
Driver feedback is going to be crucial to dialing in the car. DiBenedetto expects drivers will need to quickly figure out what they need while also figuring out what they can and can’t do at the green flag, meaning everyone is going to be under a lot of stress with so much piling up in a short amount of time.
Bowman is interested to see who gets their heights right off the hauler, and who has the splitter down too low. There are going to be plenty of ill-handling cars that will make for an interesting first run.
NASCAR is going to throw a competition caution on lap 30 to help teams start working on their cars. The lap number has not been determined for the other races, but competition cautions will happen all for races at Darlington and Charlotte.
Once drivers get through the first few corners on the first lap, it’ll be about getting back into a rhythm. Drivers expect the instinct to kick back in quickly, and while the way races will run is going to look different, the competition won’t.
“I’d say about halfway through the first race everyone will, hopefully, remember what they’re doing out there,” says Reddick. “There’s a reason we’re in Cup cars in the Cup Series.”
Says Bowman, “I’m excited for the challenge of racing a bunch, but I think the mental side of it and driving the race car, it’s going to be like riding a bike, for sure.”
DiBenedetto believes all the unknowns will make for an exciting time for the drivers, and be equally as compelling to watch for fans.
“I’m going to say one (lap, to get into a groove),” says DiBenedetto. “It may be a little more intense because we’re in traffic and it may take time for the heartrates to settle down some, it might be a little chaotic at first, and we’ll be on edge. But I’m going to give it a lap or two, and I think we’ll be right in normal race rhythm, just because especially for the more experienced guys, it’s our element being behind the wheel.”
“I think as soon as everyone makes a lap, I think one lap will make a big difference,” says Logano. “As soon as everyone makes a lap and figures out what their car can and can’t do, it’s game on. We’re racing.
“I know if you watch iRacing, you won’t believe this, but these are the best stock car racers in the world right here. Now, I didn’t say the best sim racers, but the best stock car racers, and for that reason, I think the ability for really the top 10 or 15 drivers to adapt is pretty incredible.”