How to watch a NASCAR race if you’ve never actually watched a NASCAR race
It's not like there's anything else going on right now
For the past few weeks, we have all been quarantined, locked down, social distancing, and getting fat on stuff we order online. We have binge watched complete seasons of series on TV, tried to home school our kids, and worked from home while wearing the same pajama pants for weeks at a time. And shoes? Seriously? Can’t see your feet on a Zoom call.
One thing we haven’t done is watch live sports.
The only Madness to be had in March was all of us trying to figure out what day it actually was and giving up when realizing in the end it didn’t really matter. April became the longest month ever with the only live sports highlight the NFL draft which, of course, took place remotely. For most sports fans this pandemic has meant that the only way to see our favorite players was getting insight on what they had behind them in their living rooms, or basements. Certainly, we couldn’t see them on the mound, or at the plate.
NASCAR did an admirable job during this shutdown. It brought its iRacing online platform to the masses. A sports-starved public saw real NASCAR drivers competing against each other online. They learned about “sim-rigs” some costing tens of thousands of dollars, others way less. And that cost didn’t matter, you could still win either way. Thanks to something called “Twitch” fans could see drivers with bare feet, daughters who could make their dad lose a race thanks to a remote control; they could hear drivers say bad words, “rage-quit” and lose real sponsors, or get fired in real life.
The NASCAR Pro Invitational Series was a great way to fill the void, even if only virtually.
But at the end of the day that was just a video game. Sunday, it will be for real. Sunday at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, NASCAR will race real cars on a real track. Unless you are a rodeo, German soccer, or UFC fan, NASCAR becomes the first professional team sport to do what it does best.
Now if you normally enjoy watching players in shorts run up and down a court trying to get a ball in a little basket, or love the crack of a bat, you may be forlorn right now; desperate to watch any sort of sport. Prior to all of this you may have thought NASCAR was just a bunch of rednecks racing in circles. But perhaps you’ve seen some of the iRacing on network TV (a lot of people did as it turns out), and with nothing else on, and with your “bae” tired of “Netflix and chill” (and you worn out), you might just be interested in watching a real team sport Sunday. Here’s what to expect.
There will be 40 cars racing on the 1.366-mile oval at Darlington which isn’t really an oval but more “egg-shaped.” This is because when the track was first built in the 1940s the original builder, Harold Brasington couldn’t get every piece of land he needed to build a true oval thanks to a neighbor who didn’t want to give up his minnow pond. Seriously. That’s why to this day turns 3 and 4 are smaller than turns 1 and 2. This makes for a challenging track for drivers. Another challenge is the actual surface which wears out tires quickly and can force cars slow down and make them harder to handle as the laps add up.
The 40-car field you’ll see on Sunday all belong to NASCAR’s “Cup” series. There are three main traveling (or touring) series; The Truck Series is the lowest of the three, the “Xfinity” series the middle tier, and the Cup series the highest. Normally the Cup series travels to 36 races a year all over the country. Thanks to the pandemic of course that hasn’t happened. There were only 4 Cup races this season that started in February at Daytona and was postponed in the middle of March. NASCAR committed to running all 36 races this season starting with Darlington. In the “before” world, Sunday would have been a day off after the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night. But, well, you know what happened.
Originally Darlington was to be a race held on Labor Day (right now it still will be), but was chosen as the first race back because it’s close (two hours or so) drive time from Charlotte which is the home base for many NASCAR teams.
Normally a NASCAR weekend would consist of several days leading up to Sunday filled with practice sessions, Truck and/or Xfinity races, and qualifying which is used to determine the starting lineup. These are not normal times of course. There have been no support races, practices, or a qualifying session.
Crews have remained separate; those who build the cars in the race shops have not interacted with those who will be at the track Sunday. This is one of the many steps NASCAR has taken to ensure the safety of everyone. It also means that the crews at the track who will work on the cars, pit them, etc., won’t even touch the racecar until it’s rolled off the hauler Sunday morning. Qualifying is normally single car runs with the fastest laps determining who will start first (the pole) second, and so on. With no qualifying, the field was set by…well, it’s sort of complicated, so let’s just say it was “magic.”
Sunday the field will take the green flag without having had any sort of practice, and with drivers having no sort of time behind the wheel other than virtually, for the last couple of months (and yes they will be wearing shoes), this could lead to chaos, or not. But if they make it a few laps everyone will breath a sigh of relief and the racing can get going.
CAUTION. In a normal race, yellow flags will wave to indicate a caution which slows the field down and freezes everyone’s position. This is usually due to a crash on the track, debris, weather such as rain, or that a NASCAR official in Race Control which is usually in the suites above the track, needs a potty break (OK I’m kidding about that last one).
The other type of caution is what NASCAR calls a “competition caution.” This is a caution that NASCAR puts out, usually in the early part of the race, because there was rain the night before, or some other environmental factor. Sunday there will be a competition caution, but it will be different than other cautions. Normally during a caution period, the field can get shuffled up. Some teams may decide to bring their drivers in for service (tires, fuel, and adjustments) or elect to keep them out. This normally will gain track position for a driver as will those who are able to get off pit road first. All part of the overall strategy of a race.
Sunday however with no practice sessions, the field will be frozen, and teams will be allowed to pit and make adjustments to the cars without losing track position. Since they have had a few laps, you may hear drivers complaining their car is too “tight” (when they turn the steering wheel the car seems slow to respond), or “loose” (when they turn the wheel the rear of the car feels like it’s going to slide towards the outside wall). Crews can make adjustments on the car during a pit stop to help correct these conditions.
The other guaranteed cautions you’ll see on Sunday will be for “stage breaks.” These are built-in caution periods that help crews work on strategy. These cautions will involve losing or gaining track positions, and those finishing in the top 10 in each stage will earn bonus points added to their season total. Points are awarded for each race (with the exception of the All-Star Race) with the Cup champion being the driver who earns the most points in a season. Stage points add to this total.
Sunday there will be three stages: Stage 1 will end at lap 90, Stage 2 lap 185 and Stage 3 which will end on the same lap as the race, lap 293. The stages not only provide breaks that allow the crews to further work on their cars, but drivers will race a lot more aggressively to try and score as many stage points as possible. This is why you’ll sometimes see teams trying to get a car back out in the race after its been damaged or has some sort of mechanical issue. There may not be any hope for a race win and be many laps down, but the farther up in the finishing order, the more points that are scored.
During the race you may see drivers who pit under green flag conditions. This can be part of an overall strategy and is usually a gamble; one that can pay off, or not. The overall strategy, the green flag stops, the gamble on whether there will be enough fuel to make it to the end, the adjustments drivers call for are among the things that make a race interesting to watch. Part of Sunday’s strategy will not only be fuel mileage but tire wear as well. This tire “fall-off” plays a big role at Darlington. With its very abrasive track surface, tires will wear out quickly and teams can gain an advantage, especially in speed, by pitting and changing tires at the right times.
So who do you root for? It would be somewhat confusing if you didn’t focus on a certain driver, or team. The drivers themselves come from all over the country (and Mexico) and range in age from 20-to over 40. You may identify with one from your hometown or home state. Or you might work or associate with one of the many sponsors on the cars of the actual ca manufacturer (Ford, Chevy, or Toyota). How ever you decide your allegiance, watching the progress (or lack thereof) of certain drivers through the field is one of the ways to make a NASCAR race interesting. Factor in pit strategy, stage breaks, or other story lines (Ryan Newman is making his return to racing after a horrific crash in the season opening Daytona 500, and popular driver Matt Kenseth makes his return after a two year hiatus thanks to the firing of another driver after that driver uttered a racial slur during an online race are just two of the storylines) and you have the makings of a pretty fun afternoon.
Wash the pajama pants, turn off Netflix and get ready to forget about your cares and woes for a couple of hours. Organized professional team sports in America are back. After this Sunday there will be several more races over the course of May and into June. And while they may not look like anything those of us who love NASCAR have ever seen, including mid-week prime time racing, at the end of the day it will be the kind of racing we all know and love; and have longed for. We hope you will love it and will join us for the ride.