Daytona Road Course Provides Many Unknowns

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The Daytona Road Course is likely to be among the most chaotic NASCAR Cup Series races of the season. (HHP/Chris Owens Photo)
The Daytona Road Course is likely to be among the most chaotic NASCAR Cup Series races of the season. (HHP/Chris Owens Photo)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When Kevin Harvick found out that he was likely going to be the driver to lead the NASCAR Cup Series field to the green flag for the inaugural series race on the Daytona Road Course, he didn’t mince his words.

“I think me leading everybody into turn one at Daytona could be interesting because I have no freaking clue where I’m going as we go down there,” said Harvick.

Harvick’s feelings echo those of most of the drivers competing in Sunday’s Go Bowling 235 on the 3.61-mile road course that includes aspects of Daytona Int’l Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval as well as an infield section.

The course is nearly identical to that utilized during the Rolex 24 At Daytona IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship event held every January. The only difference is a new turn inserted at the exit the superspeedway’s turn four, which will create an additional passing zone and slow the cars prior to the turn into the infield.

Harvick has experience on the Daytona Road Course, but it’s practically a lifetime ago. In 2002, he competed in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, but the team he was driving for dropped out after 123 laps. Regardless, whatever firsthand knowledge he had regarding the Daytona Road Course is likely long forgotten.

Only one driver in the NASCAR Cup Series competed on the Daytona Road Course during the most recent Rolex 24, reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, who was a part of the AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus team.

Others in the field have competed on the Daytona Road Course, though, none have done so recently. They include seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, 2004 Cup Series champion Kurt Busch, 2003 Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Brendan Gaughan, Timmy Hill and Michael McDowell.

McDowell is likely the most experienced of those, having competed on the Daytona Road Course eight times between 2005 and ’12, including seven Rolex 24 starts. He’s a strong candidate to run at the front and, perhaps, even steal a victory.

“It’s a big weekend because only a handful of NASCAR Cup Series drivers have experience on this course and I’m one of them,” McDowell said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to compete in seven 24 Hours of Daytona races over the years, so it’s going to be a lot of fun to unload and see what we have.

“There’s no practice or qualifying, but everyone at Front Row Motorsports has put a lot of work into this weekend and we know that it’s a good chance for us to potentially steal a win and lock ourselves into the playoffs.”

As McDowell pointed out, the added pressure of there being no practice or qualifying makes Sunday’s race that much more unpredictable.

“Yeah, it’s going to be pretty wild,” said Kurt Busch, who is set to start eighth. “Just driving a little bit on iRacing and the simulator with Chevrolet, having a mindset of driving the car at 80 percent pace has seemed to have provided the most stability in laps times and in as far as tire wear and just finding a rhythm. That’s the key thing. You have to find a rhythm and we’re all going to be doing it as they drop the green flag and as there are 39 other cars around us and who knows? Thunderstorms are in the forecast and we may as well throw rain tires on our cars in 2020 just to say we checked that off the box.”

Hendrick Motorsports took advantage of its relationship with Chevrolet, bringing in Corvette Racing driver and IMSA sports car regular Jordan Taylor to help its drivers prepare.

Alex Bowman, driver of Hendrick’s No. 88 Chevrolet, was thankful for Taylor’s help, but acknowledged there is little that he can do to prepare for the rain that is being forecast.

“Jordan really helped with entry to turn five,” said Bowman. “His entry in there was quite different than how I was approaching it. Some of the braking zones were a little bit different. Then some line stuff and some rain stuff as well. Having his knowledge is super helpful. He’s a really good guy and I really appreciate his help. The rain will be the biggest thing. I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing in the rain, so being able to have an idea of what to expect there is a big help.”

Bowman’s teammate, Chase Elliott, admits that while they can use iRacing and simulators to prepare, there is nothing that can truly prepare anyone for what’s to come.

“I think that’s going to be super, super difficult for everybody,” Elliott said. “And it’s going to be one of those things where you have to creep up on it and it’s a hard guess. You know, we can run in the sims and iRacing and all those things until we’re blue in the face. But ultimately that doesn’t, in my opinion, give you the visual aids that you need to do the right things at the right times. The only way to get that is (with) laps around the race track and 65 laps is not really a ton of time to figure those things out. So learn and learn fast and try not to make any big-time mistakes in doing it.”