Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – 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.”
It just so happens that this year’s top-ranked NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers have proven themselves the series’ best road course competitors too. And with eight races remining to set the 2020 championship field, Saturday’s UNOH 188 at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course (Aug. 15 at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) becomes especially compelling.
Only a small handful of competitors have ever turned laps on the 3.61-mile, 14-turn course on both Daytona International Speedway’s high banks and its challenging infield. Among those are the two Xfinity Series championship leaders – Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe – who competed there just this January.
Cindric, last week’s winner at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc., holds an 11-point advantage on five-time winner Briscoe, who won on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course in July. Both have run the Daytona Road Course – minus the chicane installed for the NASCAR weekend. Cindric has competed in three Rolex 24 races with a best finish of fifth in the GTD Class in 2019. Plus, both ran the four-hour IMSA SportsCar Challenge race that opens the Rolex 24 weekend in January.
Justin Allgaier, is the only other multi-time Xfinity Series road course winner competing fulltime for the Xfinity Series title this year. He owns three career Xfinity Series road course victories. He’s ranked seventh in the championship standings, more than eager to finally notch his first win of the year.
Joining them are several “road course ringers” to contend with this weekend. A.J. Allmendinger, who has a NASCAR Cup Series win at Watkins Glen and three previous Xfinity Series road course victories, has been a factor in deciding every road course race this year. He is another with plenty of Daytona International Speedway Road Course experience with 14 starts in the Rolex 24 including the overall win in the 2012 Rolex 24.
Another veteran on the Daytona Road Course entered this week is Andy Lally, who started 23rd and finished fifth last week at Road America in the No. 02 Chevrolet. He has 29 sports car starts at Daytona, including 19 in the Rolex 24 – a race he’s won five times in class.
Australian sports car star Earl Bamber will be making his NASCAR debut at Daytona driving the perennial-contending No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Bamber is a five-time IMSA winner and was runner-up in the GTLM class in the Rolex 24 this January.
While this one-of-a-kind event on the Daytona Road Course circuit is intriguing on its own, it also represents an important race toward establishing the championship contending 12 drivers. Six drivers – Cindric, Briscoe, Noah Gragson, Harrison Burton, Brandon Jones and Justin Haley have punched their Playoff ticket with wins this season. They all also happen to be competitive road course racers as well.
There is certainly a lot of competitive drama for those final few Playoff transfer positions. Eleventh place Riley Herbst holds only a 19-point edge on 12th place Brandon Brown in the final two transfer positions. Jeremy Clements, a former road course winner it should be noted, fell to 13th position in the standings and is 53 points behind Brown. Myatt Snider, another driver with a lot of road course experience, has also fallen out of the Playoff transfer group and is 73 points behind Brown.
A first-time season winner is always a possibility and especially so on a first-time visit to a road course turning this week’s event into a thriller on many levels.
“Truthfully, these first-time races have worked out great for me between the Roval and Indy, so I’m all for it,” said Briscoe, driver of the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “I enjoy going to places where I feel it’s a clean slate just because I don’t feel like I’m behind the eight-ball as much.
“You go to a place like Mid-Ohio or Road America, where I’d never been to before, and I’m trying to play catch-up to guys who have a lot of laps at those tracks. When we go to a place like the Daytona Road Course for the first time, we’re all on an even playing field. I would rather run the road course than the superspeedway just because I feel like it puts the race more in the driver’s hands. So, I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really good race.”
GANDER RV & OUTDOORS TRUCK SERIES
Perhaps the biggest wild card in its Daytona International Speedway Road Course debut may well be the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series field in Sunday afternoon’s Sunoco 159 (Aug. 16 at 12 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
With the exception of road course “ringer” Alex Tagliani, the vast make-up of the 39-car field of drivers has no experience on the 3.61-mile, 14-turn Daytona Road Course that incorporates the famous track’s vast superspeedway turns as well as a tight and challenging infield road course.
And if the new stop didn’t make this weekend interesting enough, the Gander Trucks race includes the first of a three-part Triple Truck Challenge incentive. The winner of Sunday’s race earns a $50,000 bonus as part of the program. The next two races part of the program are at Dover International Speedway next weekend and then Aug. 30 at World Wide Technology Raceway in Gateway. Should a driver win two of these races, he earns a $150,000 paycheck. Should he win all three, he would earn a $500,000 bonus
Certainly the Daytona Road Course portion of the incentive creates a wide-open field of favorites. Among NASCAR’s three premier series, the trucks annually race the least on road courses so this weekend’s challenge at a first-ever venue will surely be a wildcard as the series has five races remaining to set its 10-driver 2020 Playoff field.
Brett Moffitt, the 2018 series champion, won last year’s truck series road course at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park leading a dominating 44 of the 64 laps. None of the other former Bowmanville winners are entered this week.
Young talent Zane Smith became the most recent fulltime series driver to earn a victory, hoisting his first trophy last week in Michigan – an achievement that has guaranteed the 21-year old Californian Playoff eligibility. Championship points leader Austin Hill, Smith, Sheldon Creed and Matt Crafton all have wins assuring their place in the Playoff field as well. Grant Enfinger has two victories.
That leaves five Playoff positions currently decided by points – unless a new driver wins in the next five races. Among those on the Playoff bubble, ninth place Derek Kraus holds a 1-point edge on 10th place Todd Gilliland. Tyler Ankrum, ranked 11th, is only 29 points behind Gilliland.
A pair of typical championship contenders – 2016 series champion Johnny Sauter and last year’s Championship Four contender Stewart Friesen – sits farther outside the Playoff cutoff in what has been an uncharacteristic season for them. Sauter is 13th in the standings, 72 behind 10th place Gilliland. Friesen is ranked 15th, 103 points behind the Playoff cutoff.
“I’m excited to run the road course,” said Austin Hill, whose No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota will feature a paint scheme honoring P.J. Jones’ famous No. 98 IMSA GTP car that won the Rolex 24 in 1993. “I know a lot of people might be nervous about it, but I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve always enjoyed road course racing.
“It’ll be a big challenge to take the green flag with no practice and to learn your marks during the race. We need to stay out of trouble, inch up to it and be smart in the first stage and make sure we’re around in the final stage.
“Maybe we can put this TRD throwback scheme back in Victory Lane like PJ Jones did in 1993 at the 24 Hours.”