All the changes to expect as NASCAR returns to racing at Darlington

NASCAR will return to racing Sunday, and while it has tried to keep as much “normal” as possible, The Real Heroes 400 won’t look like, nor proceed like, a typical NASCAR Cup Series race.

So what’s different come Sunday at Darlington Raceway? Let’s count the ways.

No fans

NASCAR won’t race with fans for any of its events through June 21. Right now, Cup races are scheduled for Darlington (May 17 and May 20), Charlotte (May 24 and May 27), Bristol (May 31), Atlanta (June 7), Martinsville (June 10), Homestead (June 17) and Talladega (June 24).

For drivers, it certainly will be weird pre-race, but not during the race.

“When you’re running 200 miles an hour, you can’t look in the stands anyway,” said Roush Fenway Racing driver Ryan Newman. “I am aware of the current situation and I feel bad for the fans that they can’t be there. … I wish that they were there. I completely do. That’s a topic all in itself, but at the same time, it’s an opportunity for us to connect to the people that are doing the right thing of being socially distant, staying at home and watching the race on TV.”

No practice

To limit teams from putting additional wear-and-tear on equipment, to keep teams from having to bring backup cars, and to cut four members from the team’s roster, NASCAR opted not to have practice.

Drivers will head into Turn 1 of the race in what some have described as a “hold my beer” moment.

“I feel like everyone will take it easy for the first little bit, but honestly, the muscle memory of everybody is pretty good, so once you get one run in and things like that I think we’ll be back to normal,” said Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney.

Don’t expect setups to be absolutely conservative despite the lack of practice time to make sure the car is optimal for racing.

“As competitive as it is, if you take the conservative approach into that, you’re going to get beat by somebody who didn’t and hit on it,” Denny Hamlin crew chief Chris Gabehart said. “You just can’t afford to be conservative like that and expect to win.

“You’ve got to unload with what you think is best no matter if it causes you to hold your breath or not.”

No qualifying

NASCAR had a qualifying draw for the lineup Sunday, where the top-12 charter teams in owner points were eligible for spots 1 through 12, then 13-24 in owner points were eligible for spots 13-24, and then those 25-36 in owner points eligible for spots 25-36. The four open teams were set by owner points, with a draw for the final two spots because Josh Bilicki and B.J. McLeod didn’t have owner points.

Brad Keselowski will be on the pole while Alex Bowman will join him on the front row.

For the second race at Darlington, NASCAR will invert the top-20 finishers from the first race to the first 20 spots and then those who finished 21st-40th will line up in order of their finish.

Different preparation

NASCAR has recommended that teams, if possible, keep their road crews and shop crews separate. Typically the crew chief is in the shop daily, and the road crew will work a day in the shop helping get a car finalized.

William Byron crew chief Chad Knaus went to his shop Thursday just to see his pit crew train and Knaus stayed in his car the entire time.

Knaus on Thursday said: “I went there three weeks ago to pick up something for my printer and other than that, I haven’t been there at all. So, no face-to-face or contact with these guys whatsoever. Everything has been on team meetings and looking at them just like I’m looking at you now [over Zoom].”

My response: “So you won’t have touched the car at all until maybe you help push it through tech on Sunday?”

Knaus: “I haven’t seen the race car at all. Nope, haven’t seen it or touched it. Nothing.”

Me: “I’m surprised you’re still breathing.”

Knaus: “That’s the recommendation by NASCAR for the traveling teams to stay as isolated as they can and try to keep everybody at the race track as healthy as we can and that’s the protocol we put into place and that’s what we’ve been abiding by.”

No photos for teams

Teams are used to having photos — each manufacturer has photographers on site — of the cars during the race so they can look at damage. They won’t, and at Darlington, drivers tend to hit the wall and keep racing.

“At Darlington that’s a big deal – you’re right up against the fence, a lot of times cars get into the fence and we use those pictures to assess the damage and get a game plan for how to fix the car or if we need to fix the car under green,” Gabehart said.

“We won’t have those eyes. We’ll have TV and binoculars.”

No interaction between drivers and crews

Drivers have been told to get to the race track at least four hours early. They will be screened in an area separate of where the crews are being screened. They will then drive to their motorhomes – their motorhome drivers will be allowed to park the night before and then have to leave – and stay there until about 15 minutes before the race. They will then walk to their cars to be there 10 minutes prior to firing the engines.

“Not being able to go to the shop, not being able to have meetings face-to-face is just not normal,” said Cup Series points leader Kevin Harvick.

“And part of the thing that I think we’ve all learned through all this is just your interaction with people is something that you just kind of took for granted, and I think as you look at it now, that’s the part that you’re missing the most.”

Spotters in different locations

Instead of being crammed atop the officials booth, spotters will be spread out across the top rows of the grandstands. They won’t have any practice nor qualifying to determine their sight-lines. Not only that, with teams having limited crew members, spotters could be more key for drivers in telling them if they are clear as they come in and out of their pit box.

There will also be no service of the handheld devices that some spotters use for lap times and replays. There will be no big screens at the track with video for them to see.

Different rosters

NASCAR eliminated four positions – at a team’s choosing – from their road crew. Most teams eliminated a mechanic or two, plus an engineer and/or a tire specialist. Four teams actually will leave a car chief back at the shop to work on the cars – since there is no practice, their work beyond typically overseeing the car as a it goes through tech, is done. Teams are allowed to share an engine tuner.

“One of my engineers is very mechanically inclined, so he can cross over and do a multitude of things,” Knaus said. “It’s not like he’s just hugging a computer, right? So, I think every team is being adjusted per their strengths and what they feel their needs are.

“Sometimes, all their engineers do is look at a computer. And they have no value at the race track and can do everything remotely. … Personally, I need my engineer. I’m not smart enough to go out there and do it by myself.”

New competition caution

NASCAR will have a competition caution at Lap 30, and the format is different. Teams can’t lose spots on pit road as long as they beat the pace car out on the next lap.

The top-20 cars will come down first, then they will leave pit road as the drivers 21st-40th are coming in on the next lap. Then, the top 20 cars will come in again on the next lap and the 21st-40th cars again on the following lap. Then NASCAR will reorder the cars in their original position as long as no one lost a lap on pit road. There will be no wave-arounds that would allow drivers to not pit and regain a lap.

No big celebrations

NASCAR has told the teams they can’t celebrate with any physical contact – no fist-bumps, no high-fives, no hugging, etc.

There will be a winner’s interview done at the start-finish line at the end of the race. The driver will then enter victory lane, have some pictures taken with the trophy and the car and then will leave victory lane before the team is allowed in to push the car to the inspection bay.

“A big part of winning the race is celebrating, not only with your team but with the fans as well, so getting out and doing the interview that we’re going to do on the front-stretch after the win will definitely be unique,” said Erik Jones, who won the most recent Cup race at Darlington last September.

“If you’re doing a burnout, it will be unique as well.”

Change is what teams are used to

If there’s anything that is constant in NASCAR, it is change. Rules change every year and often in the middle of the year (remember group qualifying on ovals?), so this is nothing too new as far as a concept.

“NASCAR and auto racing, with the rules changing the way they do, and the formats different week to week and year to year, our game is largely about adaptability,” Gabehart said. “If you’ve made it to the top level at any of these top organizations, it is because you adapt the best of everyone in our field.

“You have consistently proven your ability to adapt better than the rest. This will be no different.”

Upcoming NASCAR schedule (All times ET):

Darlington

May 17: Cup race, FOX, 3:30 p.m.

May 19: Xfinity race, FS1, 8 p.m.

May 20: Cup race, FS1, 7:30 p.m.

Charlotte

May 24: Cup race, FOX, 6 p.m.

May 25: Xfinity race, FS1, 7:30 p.m.

May 26: Gander Trucks race, FS1, 8 p.m.

May 27: Cup race, FS1, 8 p.m.

Bristol

May 30: Xfinity race, FS1, 3:30 p.m.

May 31: Cup race, FS1, 3:30 p.m.

Atlanta

June 6: Gander Trucks race, FS1, 1 p.m.

June 6: Xfinity race, FOX, 4:30 p.m.

June 7: Cup race, FOX, 3 p.m.

Martinsville

June 10: Cup race, FS1 7 p.m.

Homestead

June 13: Gander Trucks race, FS1, 12:30 p.m.

June 13: Xfinity race, FOX, 3:30 p.m.

June 14: Xfinity race, FS1, noon

June 14: Cup race, FOX, 3:30 p.m.

Talladega

June 20: Xfinity race, FS1, 5:30 p.m.

June 21: Cup race, FOX, 3 p.m.