Should there be less practice time?
There has been a lot of talk over this past week as to how much practice NASCAR teams should have after the COVID-19 situation subsides. Fans want no practice due to how exciting the racing is without it. Drivers want some practice, but definitely a very limited amount of it.
One thing all parties can agree to is that there should definitely be less practice time. These drivers are the best at what they do; they do not need two hours of practice time. What’s more is that less practice time means less money teams will burn in fuel and in tires, cutting costs.
There should be two practice sessions for every race, with both being only 15 minutes in length. The first session, which I’m calling necessary practice, would be prior to qualifying and only involve drivers and teams that really need it. Mainly rookies, drivers new to the track and open cars that may need to qualify on time.
The idea of practice should no longer be about radically changing the setup of a car. Instead, it should be about fixing any potential problems from unloading it. Jimmie Johnson tweeted that he was largely MIA at Homestead-Miami Speedway due to a problem the team couldn’t fix in the race but could with just a lap of practice.
The other primary purpose of practice has been to shake down back-up cars. But if the sport is serious about saving money, there should be two very simple rule changes: get rid of the must-start-every-race playoff rule and decree no more back-up cars. Nothing extra gets loaded on those haulers. It would save teams money that they could then reinvest into other areas and honestly, if a car cannot make it through qualifying and a maximum of 30 minutes of practice, the team shouldn’t compete on race day.
NASCAR’s normal schedule should be fairly simple for Cup Series racing from now on if the format is standardized like this, and uniform to every racetrack. Here’s my proposed race schedule for every Sunday race, with the exception of the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600:
Race haulers should arrive at the racetrack on Friday night, with the hauler driver being the only personnel for a race team at the track on this day.
Saturday (All local times)
6 a.m.: Garage opens.
9 a.m.: Pre-qualifying technical inspection begins, with the teams participating in the necessary practice being the first to go through technical inspection.
11:45 a.m.: Necessary practice begins.
12:00 p.m.: Necessary practice ends.
2 p.m.: Qualifying begins, with the day’s secondary race(s) immediately following and with post qualifying technical inspection during the race.
Sunday (All times ET)
8 a.m.: Garage opens.
10 a.m.: Warm-up practice begins.
10:15 a.m.: Warm-up practice ends.
2 p.m.: Command to start engines.
For night races, everything would be squeezed into a day, with no post-qualifying inspection. And due to how little these cars would be on track, there could be a second series running on that one day.
Going to this format would make race weekends significantly more universal. Sometimes the race is on at 3 p.m. right now, sometimes it’s an hour earlier, sometimes an hour later. It’s hard to build an audience week to week with varying race start times. The NFL has a set schedule and it’s the most successful sport in America; maybe its lead should be followed more.
What are the issues with less practice time?
There have been plenty of good points going against the idea of no or limited practice time, chief among them that big teams have simulators to prepare their setups and drivers, while smaller teams do not. This is correct. However, there are three rebuttals to this point.
The first is simply, what’s the difference now? Joe Gibbs Racing more than likely has purpose-built simulators, and that did not stop its cars from having mechanical issues in the early running of Martinsville Speedway last week. Technology can produce fantastic tools, but at the end of the day, there will always be a difference from the real world and the simulator.
The second is that even with practice, what small teams were doing well? The days of a small team coming to a track, nailing the setup in practice and going on to pull off a surprise win like Johnny Benson Jr. did for MB2 Motorsports just doesn’t happen whatsoever now. What’s the difference between 2020 Front Row Motorsports and 2012 Front Row Motorsports?
Small teams are starting small and not really improving that much year to year. The only two exceptions to this are Stewart-Haas Racing (because Tony Stewart became a co-owner) and Furniture Row Racing. A change like this would favor big teams in the long run, but literally any change will favor big teams in the long run. Welcome to late-stage capitalism.
The third is that there’s only but so much a simulator can cost. Legitimate simulators are very pricey up front, no doubt about it. But would it be more expensive than what the teams would save every year on having less track time on the racetrack, bringing less cars to the track and saving a night in the hotel for at-track personnel every single week?
There definitely are media concerns with a schedule like this, as Friday is a good day to interview drivers or to attend press conferences at the track. The simple reality, however, is that the COVID-19 situation has shown us that these are largely unnecessary and can be done over the phone or on video calls.
If this doesn’t work out, nothing is stopping NASCAR from just deciding it didn’t work in the future. It did it with group qualifying last year. This is one huge change that could pay dividends long term, but one the sport can’t fully grasp until an attempt is made.
Will Ryan Newman make it a storybook ending at Talladega Superspeedway?
This weekend’s Cup race at Talladega will be the first superspeedway race since the Daytona 500 in February, which ended with a horrifying crash that FOX now uses in commercials because of course it does.
NASCAR has announced rule changes to try to address some concerns. It’s nothing radical like putting a chicane on the backstretch (which would solve at least some things, maybe?), but it should slow the cars down slightly while also attempting to eliminate tandem racing.
Ryan Newman will be my pick for the race this week, both because of the potential feel-good story and that Newman is actually a very good superspeedway racer in his own right. While Newman only has one win at this discipline, he’s also been fairly consistent in it, which is rare considering how wildly varied race results are at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega.
Flyin’ Ryan has four top-10 finishes in his last five starts at Talladega, including two runner-up finishes. Roush Fenway Racing has also had a strong superspeedway program in general the last few years, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. getting the team two wins and Newman well on his way to another Daytona 500 win prior to his accident in February.
If I can be jinxed once, maybe I’ll be jinxed again….