Whatever you might think of NASCAR having teams run the Daytona road course for the first time (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC) without any on practice or qualifying, allow Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Chris Gabehart to offer some perspective.
“The ability to produce this race that you’re going to see on Sunday from a technology point of view with NASCAR and the teams and the manufacturers working together didn’t exist 10 years ago,” Gabehart (pictured above, with Denny Hamlin) said. “It was just too hard of a math problem to go into a weekend with this level of unknowns and pull it off.
“Now, we’ve yet to see how successful we’re going to pull it off, but I can tell you we’re going to do a lot better job of it than we would have five or ten years ago, and it comes from technology.”
In the era of COVID racing, NASCAR and its teams are adapting weekly. For now, gone are the days of having practice to dial in a car or qualifying to determine one’s starting position. Since May, it has been unload and go race, and this weekend is no different despite all three series running the Daytona road course for the very first time.
Technology has played a crucial role in teams being able to bring competitive cars to the track and drivers being prepared before strapping in. iRacing to driver in the loop simulation (commonly known as OEM simulators) provide resources and data needed to get on track in the real world. Daytona is no different.
NASCAR, its teams, and manufacturers have all worked together through simulation to work out race details like gear ratios, aero package, tire setup, and even the necessity of an additional chicane. But Gabehart and all his Gibbs teammates have also been relying heavily on simulator work to prepare their race cars.
It starts with the setup, which for this weekend is born from the Charlotte Roval. Gabehart explains that the Charlotte Roval and Daytona road course share similar characteristics: there is a flat, flowing, handling compliant infield section where the car needs to produce grip, and then there is the high-banked, high-speed portion of the traditional oval where the car needs to transform to deal with high loads and not bottom out.
When it came to dialing in that setup, Jack Hawksworth is the perfect fit for that.
Hawksworth is a Toyota Racing family member in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where he drives a Lexus RC F GT3. Earlier this year, Hawksworth worked closely with Kyle Busch ahead of the Rolex 24, and Hawksworth has stock car experience having run for Gibbs in the Xfinity Series at Mid-Ohio last year.
Hawksworth wouldn’t want to count the laps and miles he’s logged in the simulator for Toyota just at the Daytona road course. What he’s tried to do for the Toyota camp is make the cars in the simulator feel as similar as possible to how they will in real life. Hawksworth has also been someone all Toyota drivers (Truck, Xfinity, and Cup) can gauge themselves off for braking and techniques through the corners.
“It’s a fairly straightforward track as far as road courses go,” Hawksworth said. “A couple key elements are Turn 1 is a braking zone which is curved, so you’re still turning while you’re braking rather than a normal braking zone where you have the car straight. So, trying to get a good angle as you come off the banking, so you have a very straight braking zone there. Same off Turn 6 — the exit of that corner, trying to get the car straight when you hit the banking to allow the rear tires to gain traction. Just little tricks and things like that around the circuit, which tend to make a difference.
“Braking points, on-throttle points — that kind of stuff which normally the guys would have time to figure out and work out in practice that they’re not going to have this weekend. So, I tried to impart that experience from being on track so many times, and hopefully, it helps our guys to get up to speed a little quicker.”
What Hawksworth did in the simulator is all the Toyota teams have to go off.
“So, we’re applying a lot of those offsets to the Cup side in terms of grip level and parts of the course that are going to be important passing zones and parts that aren’t, and things like that,” said Gabehart. “Jack has been a huge help from that side of it. In terms of logging laps, miles, and hours in the sim, he has done some for us; Drew Herring carries a heavy load for us on that weekly and is a huge asset to us, and he’s been carrying a lot of those miles too with more generic ‘try this, try that’ type of stuff.
“It’s a unique program for us to lean on in this instance and it’s a data source to pull from where there’s not much data, so it’s what we got to use and we’ve been wearing it out for sure.”
Naturally, Gabehart wasn’t going to get into specifics on setup nuances. But like the Charlotte Roval, there is a trade-off teams must deal with because the infield and oval are so different.
“Things like, it’s the Watkins Glen tire we’re running,” said Gabehart. “Well, the big track is similar pavement texture, speeds and loads in some ways that you might see at a Watkins Glen, but the infield portion of the road course is a lot older pavement, and it’s a lot lower loads than Watkins Glen. Well, the reason we have to take the Watkins Glen tire is for the high loads that you see on the big track. But that tire is probably not going to be super grippy for the infield portion. And Goodyear, understandably, they have to err a little bit on the side of conservatism because there is no tire test. We have to go race.
“So, trying to figure out how much air pressure you need, what kinds of camber and alignment this thing’s going to want. All of this is data-driven with a very subjective eyeball to our past to try to come up with something as simple as what air pressure to put in the tires. There is just a lot that goes into this, and it is going to produce a very entertaining three hours for those watching it, I can assure you.”
Hawksworth believes stock cars are going to race well around the Daytona road course — even if he thinks it is borderline insanity drivers get no practice or qualifying before being sent out there. He expects mistakes to be made in braking zones, but to also seeing a lot of passing. And Hawksworth said a big part of the entertainment would be seeing the drivers get more and more comfortable as the race evolves.
“It’s going to be a really interesting race, and I’ll certainly sit down and watch this one,” he said. “It’s quite an interesting test because none of the teams have raced on this circuit and configuration before, so everyone is relying on simulation tools. Hopefully, our tools and the work we did proves to be productive.”
Simulation has always been in important, but the Daytona road course proves Gabehart’s point of how its importance is rapidly accelerating right in front of the sport’s eyes. Dropping the green flag Sunday afternoon having built notebooks off simulation and iRacing reps is “a testament” to where the sport has come and the willingness and ability of NASCAR to lean on its teams and manufacturers to know how to do it.
“It wasn’t too far in our past a feat of this proportion with no practice couldn’t have been pulled off, so I’m pretty proud of the industry for that. I think it’s really neat,” said Gabehart. “I think it’s something that makes our sport very different from others, and it’s not easy. And that level of nuance is something that I think the industry is worthy of a pat on the back. We’ll ultimately get our report card on Sunday, we’ll see how it goes, but it’s a huge feat to pull off for sure.”