Daytona road course a shot in the dark for Cup drivers

Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

Daytona road course a shot in the dark for Cup drivers

NASCAR

Daytona road course a shot in the dark for Cup drivers

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Kevin Harvick had a tinge of humor in his voice when he spoke of leading the field into Turn 1 at the Daytona road course this weekend. And yet, there might have also been some truth laced into his statement.

“I think me leading everybody into (the first corner) could be interesting because I have no freaking clue where I’m going as we go down there,” said Harvick (pictured at right, above, with Denny Hamlin). “Most everybody in the field is the same way. We’ll prepare the best that we can and hope that we can make it around the first lap with all the wheels still headed in the right direction.”

Just like when the Charlotte road course debuted two years ago, there is a mixture of excitement and trepidation in the air going to Daytona. NASCAR Cup Series teams are going to run the 14-turn course for the first time Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, NBC). Other variables to consider are the cars having the high-downforce package, officials adding a chicane off oval Turn 4, and using the Watkins Glen tire setup.

When Watkins Glen became unrealistic, the Daytona road course became a reality in a move Kurt Busch said was “brilliant” by NASCAR.

“With Watkins Glen not able to host the race in upstate New York and to have the road course available for us down in Daytona — with no practice, no qualifying, just jumping straight into the race — why not?” said Busch. “We’ve done everything in 2020 to overcome all these hurdles.

“The fun factor this weekend has everybody’s anxiety levels up but also the challenge that’s in front of us because it’s basically a wild card-style race where you could see a driver and team that don’t normally make the playoffs punch their ticket.”

Drivers like Michael McDowell and Daniel Suarez certainly see Daytona as an opportunity race. Although, McDowell is confident that the talented drivers are going to figure out the course, despite only having iRacing and simulators to use in preparation.

McDowell is one of 10 active drivers in the Cup Series who has any real-life laps on the course. An experienced road racer, McDowell has made multiple starts in the Rolex 24 At Daytona. The same for Jimmie Johnson and James Davison.

Others who have run the course either in the Rolex 24 or the summer sports car race are Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Timmy Hill, and Brendan Gaughan.

“It’ll be a good race,” said McDowell. “It’s a good racetrack with good passing zones. It’s a true Roval in the sense that when you’re in the banking, you’re at high speed, so we’ll be 180-185 miles an hour on the banking coming down into Turn 1 and hard braking, all those things, so I think it’ll create a lot of passing opportunities. With guys not having a lot of experience, it’s a challenging track, so I feel like you could see a lot of mistakes and a lot of (going) off. But it’s different than, say, Charlotte Roval, where when you make a mistake at Charlotte Roval there is no forgiveness — you’re into a concrete barrier. At the infield at Daytona, you have quite a bit of runoff and quite a bit of gap in between the sections, so I feel like you could make a mistake and not end your day. There is good runoff in the deep braking zones, so there are opportunities to push it hard without jeopardizing your entire day.”

Gaughan hopes his experience on the course comes into play as he knows what line he needs to run and other details. And it’s his love for road course racing that led Beard Motorsports to enter the race.

“I need to remember that the last time I raced there in an LMP car, I could lift at the ‘1’ sign going into the chicane on the back straightaway,” said Gaughan. “Now if I lift at the ‘1’ in a Cup car, I’ll end up at the airport. So, I need to remember that I’m going to need a little more braking zone room.”

Despite it being a new course, NASCAR officials did not schedule practice for any of its three series this weekend. That’s an interesting move after the Xfinity Series had practice last month when running on the Indianapolis road course for the first time.

Suarez thought “it was a joke” when he started to hear there would be no track time. There was no way that would be the case, thought Suarez.

“And here we are!” he said. “I’m extremely excited for the first few laps. I want to be in the car, but also out of the car to see all the mistakes that are going to happen. But I think it’s going to be interesting.”

Some drivers have used the words “challenge” and “crapshoot” to preview the race. Or, in the case of Chase Elliott, just focusing on the fact that there is not a whole lot to preview and prepare.

“I’ve never entered a race where you literally just have no idea what to expect,” he said.

So, when it comes to the Daytona road course this weekend, as Elliott also said, it’s “learn and learn fast and try not to make any big-time mistakes in doing it.”

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