The unknown. The uncertainty. The unpredictability. All words that are used to describe a lot of things that have happened this year, on and off the track. The unknown because of wondering when racing would restart, and what it would look like. The uncertainty of how to move forward and what will happen next. The unpredictability of what the racing would be like with no practice, no qualifying, but unload and go.
Now, take all those words, and maybe a few more that start with “un” and you have this entire weekend.
Never before has NASCAR gone to a new track, and done it under these new processes. Drivers appreciate time on the track to understand what a track is like, especially one that NASCAR has not run at any point. But, to come to a familiar speedway, but run the track that gets used a month before the sport actually is welcomed in, and do so without ever being on the track…unreal.
The setting may be Daytona, but the track certainly isn’t the one that saw Denny Hamlin win the 500 at in February, while also seeing Ryan Newman end up in a hospital while all of us are in fear of losing him.
If any driver had experience in the Rolex 24, that is the only advantage they have, and even so the only advantage is knowing the layout of the road course. NASCAR is on a track that, much like the Roval in 2018, has never been ran in this style car, and they are doing so without a practice session like the Xfinity Series got at Indy. The only way any driver now, aside from those who have ran in the Rolex 24, is familiar with the track is on the simulator. Still, the unknown will become very recognized when the green flag waves and the field barrels into the first turn.
We move onto uncertainty, which again is moving beyond the track.
Just like Indianapolis, one day prior to the main event, a Cup driver finds himself in the realm of the unknown. Austin Dillon, much like Jimmie Johnson, is at home, dealing with the fact he tested positive for Covid-19. He sits at home, watching someone else drive his No. 3. His uncertainty is not knowing if he’s spread it to his wife, his son, or anyone he’s been in contact with. He’s uncertain whether he will return to the track at Dover, or have to wait even longer to meet requirements to return.
The uncertainty at the track is nothing like he is having to deal with in his personal life, but his desire to get back to the track is, and will be, unrelenting.
Finally, we have the unpredictable. NASCAR is at a track they are familiar with, but a course that they have not ran. Add in the fact rain has been in the forecast, and due to the track being a road course instead of the massive high-banked speedway, it means the Goodyear rain tires are in the garage, along with the wiper blades and brake lights. The Cup cars have never, under actual race conditions, used this setup. Based on Saturday, the drivers are even confused on some of the terminology for the track.
Dry is obvious, and all the cars start on slicks. A “wet” track means every car must start the race on the rain tires. Add in the new “damp” term and that means it is up to the teams whether they want to start on slick tires or on rain tires, something that was an obvious problem in the early going in the Xfinity event.
NASCAR doesn’t have an “intermediate” tire like they have for Formula 1, where it finds the happy medium between having a tire that is great on dry surfaces but is grooved just a bit in case the track is damp.
All this leads to the final word that started this piece…unpredictability.
The Cup teams only have what happened yesterday to base what to expect when it comes to when to brake, when best to accelerate, and now have to also hope the enormous divot in the back stretch bus stop patched up and safe to run. If not, teams won’t need a crew chief or a spotter, they likely need someone familiar with aviation.
In the end, although the way this weekend has began with the unknowns, uncertainty, and unpredictability, at the end of it all, another word comes to mind.
It’s never been done, much like a lot of things haven’t been done before in this sport before it was forced to stop, and it could set forth a new beginning for NASCAR come next season.