(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: Practice Makes Perfect

Few of you need me to remind you that all of us are living in extraordinary times right now. By “extraordinary,” I don’t mean to imply this is a great time to be alive, though being alive right now still beats the alternative. Man, it’s summertime, AKA, “the sweet, sweet, summertime, summertime” of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.”

I want to go to some races. (Sorry, no one allowed in the grandstands in these parts just yet.) I want to go see Springsteen and E Street Band, They’re not touring this summer, which is like Canadian geese deciding all things being equal they just won’t migrate this year. No Bruce, but Taylor Swift dropped a bombshell surprise Friday releasing a new album. Waiting on the Boss, got the brat instead. Yep, that pretty much sums up 2020 to date. The challenges we face right now call for vast reserves of both faith and patience, and perhaps a sense of humor to help smooth the remaining rough edges. 

During “extraordinary times,” changes are nearly inevitable. Some changes are necessary and welcome. Others are ill-considered, annoying and pointless. Yep, I will dutifully wear my face mask during my bi-weekly, frenzied five-minute dash through the grocery store. No, I won’t wear it while driving solo in the Jeep. 

One obvious change to weekend schedules once NASCAR came back from their COVID break has been the elimination of practice and qualifying for all three of the major touring series. (Though qualifying inexplicably did take place prior to the World 600.) Last week (July 21), NASCAR officially announced there will be no pre-race practice or qualifying for the remainder of the season in Cup, Xfinity or Trucks. 

One of the tough issues to deal with mentally with the pandemic is no one can even make an intelligent guess as to how long it might last. Tell me that the crisis will last until Halloween and I’ll let out a long sigh, but put on my big boy boots and mentally brace myself for the mental rigors yet to come. But hearing NASCAR say the changes are in place the rest of the season is jarring. NASCAR typically races from Presidents’ Day weekend to the weekend before Thanksgiving anyway. 

Yes, the the end of the season is less than four months away, but here in the Northeast things change radically between now and Halloween. The hours of daylight daily shorten dramatically. Temperatures change from tropical to polar. The vast vibrant green canopy of the woods outside my windows will turn russet, gold and brown. Likely before NBC signs off from their final Cup broadcast, my neck of the woods will see its first flurries or perhaps even an overnight dusting of snow sufficient to send local residents panicked by the precipitation enough to wreck their four-wheel-drive SUVs in hopelessly inept ways that defy explanation. Oh, and for the record, nobody is offering any assurances that the crises will be behind us by 2021. Will qualifying and practice return to the schedule next year? I don’t know. I’m not even sure NASCAR will return next year, and it would be presumptuous of me, or anyone else for that matter, to say I’ll definitely be around see 2021. 

But I’ll go on record as saying in my mind qualifying and practice need to return this year if the 2020 championship battle (they hate it when I still call it the Chase) is to have even a modicum of legitimacy. 

Let’s rewind here just a bit a look at how practice and qualifying came to fall by the wayside. In those early exploratory days when NASCAR was considering how and when to start holding races again, one of the key issues they were looking at was how to best limit the number of team employees on hand at the event as well as a greatly reduced number of NASCAR employees with which to host those races. I believe that thinking was that X% of cars that practiced or took qualifying laps would get wrecked. It would take more employees to attempt to piece them back together again. Given that many (most?) race shops were shut down as “non-essential,” some teams lacked the inventory of race cars to send a prepped primary and backup car to each event. 

Over the ensuing weeks, most shops have reopened. Under the laws of building fast, loud cars, it takes X amount of hours to complete a project. Oh, you can try to rush things if you want … or if you dare … but it will likely come back to bite you. When you’ve got a roller ’71 El Camino with a newly rebuilt engine waiting on a stand beside it, you and a competent friend are going to need a full eight-hour day to return that little Elky to drivable condition for Friday night’s Cruise in Pottstown. Maybe a little less time. But then you cut a corner and neglect to install the radiator shroud. It would take some time to reverse the error. The cooling system would have to be drained again. So you take that shortcut. What’s the worst that could happen? As it turns out, the worst that could happen is you could hit a speed bump in the Eat It and Beat It parking lot, causing the upper radiator hose to make contact with the radiator fan, severing it in half and leaving you with a 10-mile hike on a surprisingly chilly early October evening down dark highways with limited overhead lighting. And no damned beer. 

Naturally, NASCAR team members are far better mechanics than my well-intended buddies and I, but I bet some of them have put a radiator hose into a fan somewhere along the line. 

Now with things slowly returning to normal, my guess is every team would be able to provide a competitive primary car and a decent backup for every event. Remember, under the laws of building fast, loud cars, it’s going to take as much or more time to repair a primary car wrecked in the course of the race itself as to repair a car damaged to a similar extent in a practice crash. It’ll just be a little easier to maintain proper social distancing back at the shop than in the garage area. (More fast, loud car rules.)

  • A) Perfection takes time. How soon do you need it?
  • B) Speed costs money. How fast can you afford to go?

Yes, as noted, NASCAR team employees are better mechanics than I am. But a lack of practice has caused some highly embarrassing wrenching gaffes this season. Bolts that weren’t installed allowed ballast weights to fall out on racetracks under the pace laps from at least two cars. That’s a huge potential safety issue, or at least it could be if fans are ever allowed to attend races again. Spark plug wires have been left laying on exhaust header tubes, causing Cup cars to start races running on only seven cylinders. Engines that suffered terminal meltdowns in the opening laps of some races almost certainly would have been caught and diagnosed prior to the race if there had been even 20 minutes of practice. Yes, these issues should have been caught prior to the race, but it doesn’t matter how good a wrench you are, if you’re waiting for a call to confirm your COVID-19 test came back negative, you’re distracted. Or if your wife calls you at the shop to say your teenage son just arrived home with a fever of 103 and has a nasty cough, you might just forget you needed to tighten that bolt just before the phone rang. 

So absent practice or qualifying, how are we setting the field? Most weeks they look at the points standings. Drivers who sat somewhere between first and 12th in the standings draw ping pong balls with the number 1-12 written on them to determine their starting spot. Similarly, drivers who are 13th through 24th in the standings draw their ping pong balls as well, and so on until the field is filled with any charter cars who haven’t gained entry yet. 

That’s a classic example of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer. Under the traditional ways of setting the field, even a driver having a mediocre season could rip off a blistering lap in qualifying and start from the front row. It didn’t happen often, but it happened. With the (over) importance of clean air on the snouts of NASCAR race vehicles these days, starting a race even 24th is like starting a fight with one hand tied behind your back. 

This hasn’t been made a real issue yet, but my guess is that it will be soon. Jimmie Johnson has fallen out of not only the top 16 drivers who would currently compete for this year’s title, but he’s also (well) out of the top 12. That means the best he could start any race is 13th, and he could start any of the upcoming races as low as 24th. This is for a driver who over a 20-year Cup career has earned (not been given or pulled out a ping pong ball) a 12th-place starting spot. Think what you will of Johnson and his place in the pantheon of NASCAR stars, but it would be nice to see him finish his retirement season with some pride intact. 

In previous seasons and even in the pre-pandemic portion of this season, pit stall selection was also based on qualifying. It now appears that drivers will get to pick their pit stalls based on the finishing order of the previous weekend’s event. The winner will get to pick a stall first, the previous week’s runner-up second, and so on and so on. At some racetracks, the pit stall a driver has doesn’t matter much, but at other tracks it can be vital to his chances for a win or even a decent finish. Longtime fans will recall an era where there were there were two pit roads at Bristol, one on the frontstretch and one on the backstretch. Earning a backstretch pit all but doomed a driver’s chances to win that weekend (Davey Allison being one notable exception). You can understand how a driver posting a fast qualifying lap earned him a good pit stall, but how low a numbered ball he was able to pull from a sack isn’t the sort of stat they post on gum ball cards. 

There’s still some confusion as to how starting spots and pit stalls might be assigned to championship contenders in the playoffs later this year. (Is “playoff” still the correct term? Still with a lower case “p”?)

It would seem NASCAR is considering seeing to it the playoff drivers all get to start near the front of the pack and grab up the choicest pit stalls every week. If one assumes that the playoff drivers are the best at what they do, one could presume they’d be able to pass some cars on their pre-ordained storm to the front. For the non-playoff drivers, their only hope to get their sponsors any TV time is to run up front or … gasp … win a race. Once again, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I already have my concerns about how hard it’s going to be for teams for find sponsorship next year, as it is given non-playoff cars and drivers become virtually invisible to NBC once the title drive commences in earnest at Darlington. 

At least one driver has gone on record as saying he feels the lack of pre-race practice is responsible for his relative lack of success in the Cup series this year. Kyle Busch is averaging a 13.8-place finish in the Cup series this year. That’s not bad, but he hasn’t had a season-long average finish worse than that since 2009. By this point last year, the younger Busch brother had won four Cup races. In fact, if you look at where Busch ranked in first practice and where he ranked after final practice, there usually was a marked improvement between the two sessions. 

It would seem that Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens have an ability to communicate. Busch is able to communicate what the car isn’t doing to his liking, and Stevens is able to make changes to the car that improve it in those problems areas. Of course, when the driver never gets to take a hot lap in the car until the green flag drops, those changes can’t be made — at which point Busch gets frustrated and all too often puts the No. 18 into the wall. I found it curious when announcing there’d be no more practice or qualifying sessions this year, NASCAR’s Scott Miller cited as one reason that “everybody” liked the new format is because it has produced a variety of new winners, not the same old names winning over and over again. I can see how some fans would find that statement problematic. NASCAR is in the business of officiating races, not orchestrating their results.   

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Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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9 comments

  1. Avatar

    Nice article Matt.
    I will point out that not having qualifying and practices also results in less time people are interacting in the garage and pits which mathematically should lower the probability of passing Covid around. Also, with no fans buying tickets the tracks save money by not needing to staff practices and qualifying. Likewise the teams save money, as they don’t need to be at the track for 3 days. The big loser is TV, much less programming each week. So I see some of these changes more about saving money than Covid.

    With all that said, I’d like to see them find a way to have one practice for as long as it takes to not need to throw a competition caution each week (I’d think an hour would be good). I don’t see why they can’t qualify the morning of the race. Hell they were doing that at some tracks last year so why can’t that happen again.

    As for Johnson, I hope he doesn’t make the playoff cut but wins a race or two during the playoff races. As for Busch, tough titties. You always think you are the best, prove it. You are playing by the same rules everyone else is, if you are as good as you think you are you should still rise to the top.

    Oh yeah, don’t worry. Chances are even if they let the playoff guys start up front, a few of them will fail inspection and have to start at the back each week.

    • Avatar

      What makes you think NA$CAR would stop Competition Caution time outs if there was practice and qualifying. NA$CAR would have a Competition Caution time out if there were no clouds in the sky. They’re for the network and have nothing to do with safety.

      • Avatar

        Maybe it’s wishful thinking but the announcers have said many times that the reason for the competition caution is due to the lack of practice. Call me stupid for believing them but logic would dictate if there were a practice they would no longer have a competition caution (except when it rains of course). If nothing else I’d like to call them on BS if they kept the CC even after they resumed having practice,

  2. Avatar

    I agree that practice and quals should happen. How about a 20 min. practice on race morning to shake down the cars, followed immediately by qualifying. since most of the races aren’t starting until mid afternoon, that gives plenty of time to prepare to race, yet should no require more personnell. Heck, the Bus..er, Xfinity series managed to qualify and race on the same day, so the Cup teams should have no problems.

  3. Avatar

    In NASCAR one of the important questions is “Is the car fast off the truck”. The way NASCAR cars are set-up is very dependent on adjustments made during practice sessions on the race weekend (other on-track practice is restricted). Other race series may be able to set up their cars using simulation technology but NASCAR is still a ‘seat-of-the-pants’ kind of car racing. That’s the reason why I believe that there should be an hour of practice (perhaps two half-hours) every weekend. Given the way good driver/car combinations can recover from penalties that send them to the back of the field, I don’t think qualifying runs are as important.

  4. Avatar

    no practice and qualifying is better line up better racing lesser funded teams are up there getting attension its cheaper for teams tracks it has leveled the fields better than most of the bs rule changes nasbutt has put in play

  5. Avatar
    Mike in Oro Valley

    I believe the absence of practice tightens the field. Given their unlimited resources and given sufficient time to prepare, JGR, Hendricks, Haas, Penske can go fast and faster. The other guy’s won’t ever go as fast without the primary element of fast. Money. So they figure it out on the track where the impact of too much money isn’t as onerous. And occasionally, the genie appears from the bottle. I think it gives the Dillon’s of this world a chance. A DiBenedetto as well. Slim though it maybe. With practice for several days, their chance is zero.

  6. Avatar

    Count me as one that has liked the fact that there is no practice/quals. I still don’t like the competition cautions, because they are not for safety, even though that’s what Nascar wants us to think

    One idea I have to set the field without the need for practice/quals, is setting the field (and pit stalls) based on where they finished the previous race. That way everyone has incentive not only to win the race, but also to get as good a finishing position as they can to start in the front the following week. And it also ensures the spots are earned and not a luck of the draw.

    As far as starting the playoff drivers ahead of everyone else, leave it to nascar to create one more gimmick of the farce that is racing playoffs.