How drivers and teams are preparing for NASCAR’s return

Drivers and teams are preparing for a frantic four races in an 11-day stretch, and for some drivers, that means a change in steering wheels.

Instead of concentrating on the internet-based iRacing events, drivers will spend more time in the manufacturer’s simulator as well as potentially go-karting. They might go to the shop, or they might not, as those in charge of car preparation do their thing with fewer people on the shop floor.

NASCAR, which hasn’t had an event since March 8 at Phoenix Raceway because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will have seven events, including four Cup races, over an 11-day stretch from May 17-27. Darlington Raceway will play host to races in Cup (May 17 and May 20) and Xfinity (May 19) while Charlotte Motor Speedway will have two Cup races (May 24 and May 27) as well as one Xfinity race (May 25) and one Gander Trucks race (May 26).

William Byron is among those who said he will go to a go-karting track as well as the Chevrolet simulator to prepare.

“There’s a lot of tools that can be used,” Byron said. “I”m going to try to prepare as similar as I do for the first race at Daytona every year.”

Each manufacturer has a simulator that uses data gathered during NASCAR tire tests by a car with several sensors that determine wheel forces and gather specific information on how the car handles at each track.

“The thing that iRacing doesn’t have that the Chevy sim has is the movement [in the seat] and the up‑to‑date setups and technology we use,” Byron said. “It’s much more similar on a car setup side to what we’re actually doing in the real racing.”

Drivers likely will only go to the shop if absolutely necessary – get fitted into a seat, check pedals, etc. – before Darlington. Teams that have separate road crews and shop crews will keep them separated as much as possible as teams try to follow guidelines set by NASCAR and the Centers for Disease Control in trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Byron said he likely will meet at least once in the same room with crew chief Chad Knaus to prepare.

“It’s going to be important to kind of meet in person, maybe at a distance or something, just to get going with Chad, just kind of understand where we are there,” Byron said.

“Chad and I have kept pretty close contact throughout the last few weeks. We’re going to try to do what we can to meet but keep it safe at the same time.”

Not every driver will do that. When they are at the track, the drivers won’t mingle with their crew and will go straight from their motorhomes to the car.

“I plan on spending zero time at the race shop,” Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick said on NASCAR Race Hub. “We’ll try to do the same thing they are going to do at the race track, and that is compartmentalize ourselves until we have a firm understanding of how everything is going to work and what’s going to happen.”

In a survey of teams Wednesday, organizations had about 25-50 percent of their workforce having returned to the shop. Some were working in shifts in order to maintain social distancing guidelines. Teams indicated they had schedules in place for disinfecting work areas and equipment after use, and some indicated they are taking temperatures prior to shop entry.

For many of the mechanics, it was the first time back in the shop in two months, as NASCAR has postponed eight races. The first three of those races were Atlanta, Homestead and Texas. Because they were all 1.5-mile tracks and teams won’t need backup cars for the four races, those cars and backups that were either done or close to being done for Atlanta, Homestead and Texas can be used for the four races at Darlington (1.366-mile) and Charlotte (1.5-mile).

Teams likely will test setups in the simulator, and one thing that will help them is the tire for Darlington will be the same tire as it was for the Darlington race last September. It was the tire that teams would have used at Homestead, so there are plenty of those mounted and ready for the opening two events. The tires at Charlotte will be one teams have used at other tracks, before but not at Charlotte.

The teams won’t have practice or qualifying for any of the races except for qualifying May 24 for the Coca-Cola 600, so NASCAR is expected to have a competition caution at Darlington with enough time that teams can make adjustments to the cars.

“I think you can anticipate for that first race in Darlington a competition caution of some kind for the May 17th event,” NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said. “Obviously we’re still working through what that may look like.

“We want to allow for some adjustments for the teams, so a lot of dialogue still going on. I’m also confident when we go back on Wednesday night, on the 20th, you may see some different things based on what we learned with our opening event.”

Stat Of Note

There will be three races at Darlington Raceway this year. The last five times a track had more than two races in one season: Riverside (three races in 1981), Daytona (four races in each season 1969, 1970 and 1971) and Macon (three races in 1969).

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What They Said

Certainly, the NASCAR fan is passionate, and we want to conduct events with fans any chance we can get. But until we believe that it’s a safe environment, and we can work with the local and state communities to make that happen, we’re going to wait until we get that OK.” — NASCAR Senior Vice President Steve O’Donnell