INSIGHT: How the pandemic – and Next Gen – has changed the car prep game for NASCAR teams

Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

INSIGHT: How the pandemic – and Next Gen – has changed the car prep game for NASCAR teams

NASCAR

INSIGHT: How the pandemic – and Next Gen – has changed the car prep game for NASCAR teams

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NASCAR races have always been won due in part to work done at a team’s race shop. But never has that been more accurate than now with the Next Gen race car.

“Everything you do here (at the shop), that’s it,” Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief James Small said. “What you roll out with and what you have in practice, you’re not really going to change. If you suck, you’re not going to get a huge amount better unless you’re fundamentally off on balance, and you can get that back with a few changes.”

Small’s driver, Martin Truex Jr., has been among those emphasizing the importance of the work done during the week. Truex went as far as to say that teams are sim racing because simulation data and OEM simulators are the basis for setups and race plans before pulling into the garage.

“Simulation, we live and die by it,” Small said. “That’s the way we’ve gone about it over the years. And that’s all it is. Whoever can work it out best in sim and has all their assumptions and variables right will win. Or have a really fast car. Because you can’t make laps any other way.

“We’re essentially making the laps virtually before we get to the track. It’s become incredibly important given that everybody now has the same car essentially. We all have the same mechanical parts at our disposal, so then it comes back to simulation, pit stops and driver.”

The last few years it’s been a changing course, which was an unfortunate result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Small breaks it down by putting things in terms of pre-pandemic, during the pandemic and post-pandemic racing.

Pre-pandemic teams had a very set and routine schedule, one that had been in place for many years. Usually, they’d work on a car until about Wednesday before it was loaded onto the hauler and hit the road. On Friday, the weekend began, and teams were able to put the car on scales, roll through technical inspection and see what needed to be adjusted.

“You had a better idea of the weather at that time, and you got on track to run, and you got to essentially iron out any errors you made for free,” Small said. “There wasn’t a penalty. So, you could go, OK, we were off on this assumption and then optimize our set up through the weekend as the track changed.

“It was more low stress. There wasn’t as much perfect on being perfect when you unloaded every week.”

During the weekend, teams usually had two days of practice and qualifying. Hours on the track gave them plenty of data to sort through to adjust the car if needed and teammates to compare to.

Small and Truex confer at Richmond. The days of teams being able to incorporate driver feedback into car preparation during race weekends are largely over. John Harrelson/Motorsport Images

“And you had driver feedback, which would help you,” Small said. “Then you’d work all night Saturday and figure out, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do and put in the car Sunday morning’. For us and the process we used on the 78 and (now) 19 team, that was where we excelled and did really well in getting better through a weekend. It also played into Martin’s (hands) because it takes him a little bit to get going.”

Then in 2020 came a pandemic that first halted the sport (and the world), and then adjusted it. There was no practice or qualifying in the pandemic except at some of the bigger races like the Coca-Cola 600, new venues and the championship weekend.

“You were preparing your race car at the shop,” Small said. “The work level and effort and amount of time we spent on simulation and trying to make sure every single variable we had going in was right, because the best of our judgment was everything. You’d make 100 assumptions a week. And you could have one of them off, and it’d blow your whole weekend. You had to try and be as perfect as you could because there was never any chance to undo (anything). Same from the car build side.

“It was all sim racing. You were learning and trying to understand where you went wrong in the last race and all your assumptions for the next race and trying to make sure they were right as far as all the variables of tires, aero and track conditions. I’m sure some people were like, ‘well, just put in what we did last time’. We don’t work like that.”

The 2022 season is post-pandemic racing. While Cup Series teams are back to practicing and qualifying, NASCAR has dramatically altered the weekend schedules and time is short. On most weekends, it’s 20 minutes of practice and then straight into qualifying.

So track time is precious for teams. However, it’s time that serves more as a systems check than a chance to dig into issues, fine-tune or, if necessary, completely change the direction of the setup on the car.

“You come to this year, and this year is a (expletive) disaster because now we essentially are racing like we’re in a pandemic, but we’re gone more,” Small said. “We’re under more pressure. We have very little information on this car. We have very little information until we start going back to places on how the tires were behaving or even trying to estimate lap times and grip level and how the cars are in traffic.”

That’s not just limited time at the track, but limited adjustments. NASCAR officials do not allow teams to make wholesale changes on the Next Gen car.

“We can’t change a lot of stuff,” said Small. “Whatever nose weight you pick, that’s what you’ve got. Whatever springs you pick, that’s what you’ve got. You can’t change toe. You can’t change the camber. So essentially, it’s become even harder because we have much less information to help guide us, and we’re working as much as we did in the pandemic. That is your car.”

Aero adjustments and geometry also can’t be changed at the track. The only way to make substantial changes? Go through the unfortunate situation of wrecking the car and needing a backup.

“Yeah, you’ve got 15 minutes, but that’s a warmup – that’s it,” said Small. “You’re still having to go through tech and you can fail and get thrown out. It’s hard, and everything is (decided) in sim because we have nothing else to go on.”

Cup Series teams get 50 minutes of practice this weekend ahead of the inaugural race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

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