NASCAR has certainly proven itself adept at managing a schedule in the ever-changing COVID-19 restricted conditions – racing at a slate of venues both intriguing and competitive. And this weekend’s Daytona International Speedway Road Course debut certainly looks to fit that criteria.
The Go Bowling 235 (Aug. 16 at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) presents a new challenge for the drivers and a welcome curiosity for new and longtime fans as stock cars compete on the 3.61-mile, 14-turn road course on the famous banks and through a technical infield of turns – for the first time in NASCAR’s 71-year history.
With only four races remaining to set the 16-driver 2020 Playoff field, this unique stop on the schedule certainly provides the opportunity for lots of competitive drama.
A total of 10 active NASCAR Cup Series drivers have run the road course previously. Seven-time series champion and Hendrick Motorsport’s driver Jimmie Johnson and Front Row Motorsport’s Michael McDowell lead the series IMSA sportscar starts in the Rolex 24 with seven each. Among the 10 active drivers to participate in IMSA at Daytona, Kyle Busch was the most recent. He raced a GTD-class entry in this year’s Rolex 24.
Longtime fan favorite Brendan Gaughan is entered for this weekend’s race and he has three Rolex 24 starts, including a class win in 2011 – the only NASCAR Cup Series driving competing on Sunday with a former road course win at Daytona.
With no practice or qualifying for the race, preparation has come from computer simulators and word of mouth from those more experienced on the Daytona Road Course. The challenge is maneuvering a bulky stock car through a course that encompasses both the high-banked turns and a technical drive through the infield.
“It’s a really tricky infield portion,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and a two-time Rolex 24 runner-up (2005, 2008).
“Starting through Turn 1 coming off the banking from the tri-oval, that entry is very tricky in a sports car. I think in our cars it will be harder yet.
“I’m thankful there’s a chicane to slow us down some before we get there and that should help with the braking stability and really, how rough and bumpy that Turn 1 entry is. The infield portion is really tight and that‘s an interesting challenge there just how tight and slow the infield piece is. Then you get out on the NASCAR section and even the bus stop portion on the back stretch is pretty big so you have this really slow infield and really fast outer area all around.”
Johnson is hopeful his experience on the course will pay off in particular. He is one of three drivers just below the cutoff line to qualify for the 16-driver Playoffs, likely needing a victory to ensure his position to contend for a record eighth championship in his final fulltime NASCAR Cup Series season.
There are six Playoff positions not currently filled by winners entering this weekend’s race at Daytona – a race trophy that also doubles as an automatic ticket to race for a title.
The points are tight from 14th place Clint Bowyer to 19th place Tyler Reddick. Bowyer holds only a 34-point advantage over 16th place William Byron. He is 60 points up on 17th place Erik Jones. Byron holds a 26-point edge on Jones and Johnson (who are tied) and a 36-point edge on Reddick. Jones, Johnson and Reddick are separated by only 10 points.
Among these drivers fighting for a Playoff spot, Jones has one road course win in NASCAR national series competition – winning a 2015 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. Johnson has a 2010 NASCAR Cup series win at Sonoma Raceway.
Among current drivers, Martin Truex Jr., championship points leader Kevin Harvick and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch are the only drivers with wins at both Watkins Glen, N.Y. and Sonoma, Calif. – two of the three road courses normally used in NASCAR Cup Series competition. Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott are the winners at the two Charlotte ROVAL races to date.
With his second career win at Watkins Glen then the victory at the Charlotte ROVAL last year, Elliott could become the first driver since NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart (2004-05) to win three consecutive road course races should he take the victory Sunday.
“I am super excited just to go somewhere new,” said Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “I’ve enjoyed Watkins Glen these past couple of years. We have a new challenge ahead with the DAYTONA Road Course.
“I think the biggest thing is not having any practice. I think it is going to be exciting but it’s also going to be really hard for the guys that have never made a lap there before. I think it’s going to give a pretty big advantage to those who’ve run the 24-hour race and have made any laps on that track.
“I’ve never made a lap. I don’t even know what turns are where. I’m going to get on iRacing and try and make some laps just to familiarize myself with the track. I’ve watched the 24-hour race, but I’ve never really paid a ton of attention to it. It’s going to be really difficult for people like me who have never seen it.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!