INSIGHT: How the pandemic – and the next generation – has changed the NASCAR team’s car preparation game

NASCAR races have always been won due in part to the work done in the team’s race shop. But it has never been more accurate than now with the next-generation race car.

“Everything you do here (in the store), that’s it,” said James Small, Joe Gibbs Racing’s chief of staff. “What you give and what you have in practice, it’s not really going to change. If you suck, you don’t get much better unless you are fundamentally unbalanced, and you can restore that with some changes.”

Small’s driver, Martin Truex Jr., was among those who emphasized the importance of the work done during the week. Truex went so far as to say that teams race via sim because simulator data and OEM simulators are the basis for setup and race plans before entering the garage.

“Simulation, we live and die with it,” Small said. “This is how we’ve gone about it over the years. And that’s it. Anyone who can do better in sim and have all their assumptions and variables right will win. Or you have a really fast car. Because you can’t make cycles any other way.”

“We basically do the laps almost before we hit the track. It becomes very important because everyone now basically has the same car. We all have the same mechanical parts at our disposal, so we go back to the simulation and the pit stops and the driver.”

It has been a changing trajectory in the past few years, and it has been an unfortunate consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Small breaks it down by putting things in terms of pre-pandemic, during the pandemic and the post-pandemic race.

The pre-pandemic teams had a very specific schedule and routine, which had been around for many years. Normally, they were working on a car until about Wednesday before it was loaded onto the pickup truck and hit the road. The weekend started on Friday, and the teams were able to put the car on the scale, run a technical inspection and see what needed to be adjusted.

“You had a better idea of ​​the weather at the time, you went on the track to run, and you basically had to iron out any mistakes you made for free,” Small said. “There was no penalty. So you can go ahead, OK, we started on that assumption and then improved our setup over the weekend as the track changed.

“It was less stress. There wasn’t enough perfection when I was offloading every week.”

Over the weekend, teams usually had two days of training and qualifying. The watches on the track gave them plenty of data to sort out to tune the car if necessary and their teammates to compare.

Small and Truex is awarded in Richmond. Gone are the days of teams being able to incorporate driver feedback into a car setup over the weekends. John Harrelson/Motorsport

“And you had the driver’s notes, which should help you,” Small said. “And then you’ll be working all Saturday night and figure out, ‘Okay, that’s what we’re going to do and put it in the car on Sunday morning.’ For us and for the process we used with the 78 and 19 team (now), that was where we stood out and did a really good job of getting better over the holiday. Weekend. I’ve also played for (hands) Martin because it takes him a bit to move forward.”

Then in 2020, a pandemic emerged that first stopped the sport (and the world), then modified it. There has been no practice or qualification in the pandemic except for some of the bigger races like the Coca-Cola 600, the new venues and the weekend championship.

“You were setting up your race car in the shop,” Small said. “The level of work and the effort and the amount of time I spent in the simulation and trying to make sure every single variable was correct, because our best judgment was everything. You would make 100 assumptions a week. And you could have one of them, and it would blow the whole weekend.” You had to try to be as perfect as possible because there wasn’t any chance of undoing (anything).Same on the car building side.

“It was all sim racing. You were learning and trying to understand where you went wrong in the last race and all your assumptions for the next race and trying to make sure they were right about all the tire variables, weather conditions and track. I’m sure some people were like, ‘Okay Just put in what we did last time. We don’t work that way.

The 2022 season is the post-pandemic race. While the Cup Series teams are back in training and qualifying, NASCAR has dramatically changed weekend schedules and time is short. On most weekends, training takes 20 minutes and then qualifies directly.

So track time is precious to teams. However, it is more time for it to serve as a systems check rather than an opportunity to research problems or completely adjust or change the direction of the setting on the vehicle if necessary.

“I came into this year, and this year is a (nasty) disaster because now we’re basically racing like we’re in a pandemic, but we’ve gone further,” Small said. “We’re under more pressure. We have very little information on this car. We have very little information until we start going back to places on how the tires are behaving or even trying to estimate lap times, grip and how the cars move.”

This is not only limited time on the track, but limited modifications. NASCAR officials do not allow teams to make wholesale changes to the next generation vehicle.

We can’t change a lot of things,” Small said. Whatever nose weight you choose, that’s what you have. Whatever springs you choose, that’s what you have. You can’t change the toe. You can’t change the camber. So, basically, it’s more difficult because we have a lot less information to help guide us. And we’re working as much as we did in the pandemic. This is your car.”

Aero mods and geometry cannot be changed on the track either. The only way to make fundamental changes? He went through the unfortunate situation of car crashing and you need a backup.

“Yeah, you have 15 minutes, but that’s a warm-up—that’s it,” Small said. “You still have to go through the technology and it can fail and be eliminated. It’s tough, and everything (set) is in the simulation because we don’t have anything else to go on.”

Cup Series teams get 50 minutes of practice this weekend before the opening race at World Wide Technology Raceway.