INSIGHT: COVID-era NASCAR races a slow burn for crew chiefs

Matthew Thacker/Motorsport Images

INSIGHT: COVID-era NASCAR races a slow burn for crew chiefs

NASCAR

INSIGHT: COVID-era NASCAR races a slow burn for crew chiefs

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NASCAR race day in the pandemic era has a great calm-before-the-storm feeling to Chris Gabehart.

It’s been well documented how teams are unloading their cars and going straight into a race. Practice and qualifying are gone, and NASCAR, aside from doubleheaders, has adopted one-day shows where the series comes to town and then leaves just as quickly.

“Whereas in a prior world, it starts off casual but continually ramps up through a Friday, for instance, as practice gets closer,” Gabehart tells RACER. “And then you have a big pool of data to pull from so post-practice it’s analyzing that data and go-go-go for the rest of the weekend. (Now) it’s definitely got a lot different tone and tenor to it, for sure.”

Gabehart, the leader of Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team (pictured with Hamlin, above), admits it has required an adjustment in how the process works. Instead of a mad dash in which 40 crews are gathered at the gate waiting for the garage to open, social distancing has Kip Childress, the assistant series director, calling in each race team individually.

With arrival times different, that leads to a different pace in the garage. Some teams are arriving while others are already going through technical inspection. And now, crews are unloading their cars and going straight to inspection for the event. Pre-pandemic, teams would be able to roll their cars through inspection for a reference point of what they needed to work on.

“Now, you’re going to tech before the race, so they’re keeping score right away,” says Gabehart. “If you make a failure, it counts towards any potential penalty if you get multiple failures. So, that part of it is a little nerve-racking right off the bat. While NASCAR has been fair — what’s expected of us is very clear — (tech is) not a get-calibrated moment anymore like it used to be. You have to come off the truck pretty well buttoned up.

Rolling straight into tech means inspection is no longer a “get-calibrated moment,” Gabehart says. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

“There isn’t this lull of an hour and a half, two hours prior to practice, and you’re just getting your bearings. It’s, ‘Man, we’re keeping score right away here,’ so that part of it is a fair amount different. But it’s a very spaced-out, casual feel getting through tech. If you do happen to pass on the first time, you actually have a lot of time in between the next necessary event which is getting the car warmed up, any final adjustments, and putting actual race tires on. We’re not able to go through tech on our race tires because we don’t have them yet — they haven’t been sorted yet. When we get in the garage, the tire guy is off working on getting tires put together and sorted from Goodyear, and we’re already through tech, where in the past that wasn’t the case.”

Gabehart likes the saying winners want the ball. And so, when it’s suggested that this must be the most stressful time to be a crew chief, he counters that while it’s not easy, “that’s cool.” He chooses to look at the current climate as an opportunity for a team to separate itself from the pack. With no practice and time to calibrate a car, it’s about the decisions made before going to the racetrack.

“I don’t prefer to look at it as much more stress; I really don’t feel more stressed,” he says. “But certainly, the level of scrutiny you have to put in getting to the point of ‘Gentlemen, start your engines,’ and Lap 1, Turn 1, is way higher than it’s been before.”

Because of there being a new way of racing, NASCAR has been forced to allow teams a final adjustment period on race day – rear rounds, changing tires, and running the engine. One thing Gabehart does now that he would rarely do pre-pandemic is go through tech with the car. Previously, he focused on preparing for practice but with fewer people allowed at the track, Gabehart makes sure he’s there to make notes on things NASCAR wants them to work on or just get a feel for the situation in case something is needed.

When the car is gridded, or as Gabehart says, “my best guess (for the race) is on the grid,” there will be a lull. For him, this time is spent like any typical race weekend in that he’s going through race strategy. However, even that has a new feel.

Limited rosters mean JGR is not taking its engineers to the racetrack. Those team members are stationed at the race shop and communicate with Gabehart and the team from afar. The level of stress and load put on the IT department has increased because of the importance of the communication having to go back and forth through the ether, several states away, within milliseconds.

The familiar lines of communication with NASCAR teams has been scrambled by pandemic protocols. Rusty Jarrett/Motorsport Images

Race prep also comes with the caveat that there is zero track time before the race, which is a big unknown in the room. How will the balance of the car be? Are they close enough to stay out during the competition caution or off in left field? What will Hamlin need? Will they be on the splitter too hard? Plus, having a competition caution, a third known caution, is going to affect the strategy of whether a team pits, takes two or four tires, or stays out.

“Those are the types of things that we would work on every week, but we’re working on them differently because the engineers are at the shop,” says Gabehart. “And we’re also working on them with a lot more variables in the room to consider.”

Some teams have also turned to their crew chiefs to assist the pit crew during a pit stop. A race broadcast may catch someone like Rodney Childers of Stewart-Haas Racing gearing up and climbing down from his perch to offer an extra pair of hands wherever needed. But Gabehart says the No. 11 team hasn’t had to do that, and he believes it’s more beneficial for him to be connected to the race prior, during, and after the pit stop.

“It would certainly disrupt the way we work if I had to get unplugged and go down there,” Gabehart says. “So, thankfully, we’d not had to do that.”

Race day is different for everyone in a pandemic. For a crew chief like Gabehart, it’s all about the details on his Toyota Camry, and he’s one of many who frets over ten-thousandths of an inch.

“You better get off the truck and your magnitude on balance, on car speed, on splitter height, all that has to be worked on through simulation ahead of time,” says Gabehart. “And again, so many areas of the race car we’re talking about ten-thousandths of an inch. The level of detail was always high, but now the consequences of being wrong are way higher. So, the amount of detail which you have to scrutinize is just much, much more, and it causes more anxiety.”

From arriving the night before or morning of the race to entering the garage differently, the added importance on tech, and how teams communicate are the nuts and bolts of the new race day for a crew chief. But the truth, Gabehart admits, is that he spends a lot of time relaxing.

“Trying to chill out, trying to keep your mind right,” he says. “I don’t ever take myself too seriously — although it may seem like I do at times, I don’t. But the fact of the matter is, Lap 1, Turn 1, is now the race, and they’re keeping score and the amount of detail it takes to put on the type of shows that we do with no practice, I really wish the fans could understand just how hard that is to do.”

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