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Posted: Friday, May 12, 2017 9:57 am

The right race plan

For all NASCAR drivers and their teams, the ultimate goal is to win the race. But to win a race, there are a large array of strategies that they must take into consideration before and during competition.

For NASCAR teams, one of the most imperative parts of the planning process before a race weekend is the countless hours engineers put into research and development. The amount of thought and preparation that goes into this stage is significant because teams use the information to come up with the right race plan. In addition, each track on the NASCAR circuit requires a different strategy, so having the correct information heading into a race is vital.

Even more so, sometimes the same track can require an altered approach when drivers and teams visit it the second time around. For example, the way a driver strategizes for the Daytona 500 in February is much different than the way they approach the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway in July. Along with the distance of the race, track temperature is one of the biggest components, as temperatures are much cooler in February than in July and ultimately impacts the grip on the track.

Similar to track temperatures, there are many more underlying factors that dictate the way drivers run a race. Everything from tire wear to fuel mileage, and from track position to caution flags must be taken into consideration.

Prior to a race, teams use practice sessions at the track to help curate a statistical race analysis. The analysis helps drivers find the best handle on the car, as they test out different set-ups. Practice also gives teams time to test the different grooves and lanes around the oval in order to locate the fastest one for their stock car.

Following their practice runs, teams will then combine their new analysis with data from previous races at the facility to formulate their race plan.

To gain a better understanding of how strategies can vary from track-to-track, you can look back at the last few races on the Monster Energy Series schedule as examples. Of the four races run in the month of April, three took place at short tracks, which are less than a mile in length. One of those races was the frenzy-filled Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway – the second shortest track on the Monster Energy Series schedule (0.533-mile track). At Bristol, drivers have to be conscious of the close-quarters racing and the constant nudging and bumping from otherdrivers, so keeping the car with minimal damage is one of the keys to winning the race. 

In addition, Bristol causes a lot of wear-and-tear on tires and brakes because of its track configuration and the amount of laps in the race. The high banking of the track mixed with the short radius in the corners causes drivers to turn the wheel at more of an angle and use the brakes extensively. Also because of the 24 to 28-degree variable banking in the corners, tires are pushed into the track triggering more friction and depletion of the tires. This exhaustion on the brakes and tires is a key race component that drivers and teams must keep on the top of their minds throughout a race in case either one falters.

On the other end of the spectrum are much larger tracks like Daytona International Speedway (2.5-mile track) and Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile track).

Drivers and teams take a very different approach in the planning stages of these races because of their enormous size and high-speed racing. We saw a great illustration of this during last weekend’s GEICO 500 at Talladega.

Unlike the constant turning that we see at short tracks like Bristol, drivers at Talladega focus on using more of their throttle and less of their brakes. And with competitors traveling in close packs at speeds of more than 200 mph at the superspeedway, teams have to pay close attention to their radiators, as they have a higher tendency to overheat because of limited airflow. The fast speeds at superspeedways also don’t allow for a lot of the same bumping between cars that is seen at short tracks, as any small nudge could potentially lead to a large accident.

As for road-course racing, when the Monster Energy Series travels to Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International for the only two road-course races on the circuit, in June and August, respectively, there are even more variables that drivers and teams need to consider when developing a racing plan. But that’s a topic of conversation that we will keep on the back burner until we get closer to those tracks in June (Sonoma) and August (Watkins Glen).

Apart from studying the dynamics of a track and how they can affect the performance of a stock car, another important factor that can lead to a win in NASCAR is pit strategy. In a sport where wins are decided in tenths of a second, every moment that a car spends on pit road is valuable. A crew chief has to make the quick and pivotal decision of whether a car needs a two-tire stop, a four-tire stop or just a full tank of Sunoco racing fuel. Depending on feedback from the drivers during the race, crew chiefs are also tasked with making chassis and tire pressure adjustments to cars when on pit road.

In an ideal scenario, a pit crew is able to accomplish a full-blown pit stop in 12 seconds. And with the addition of stage racing this year, there can be added pressure to those pit stops, as bonus points and a playoff point are on the line at the end of each stage. The stage racing also ensures that there will be at least two pit stops during a race when competition goes to caution at the end of Stage 1 and 2.

So far this season, the stage format has already played a significant role in pit strategy. Just last week at Talladega, Denny Hamlin strategized to pit before the end of Stage 1, allowing him to stay out when the race went to caution at the end of the stage. When the rest of the field did pit under caution, Hamlin was able to stay out and started Stage 2 in first. Using that to his advantage, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver led the rest of the stage and ultimately earned the stage win and a coveted playoff point.

Racing strategy has become just as important as having a good driver behind the wheel. No matter if it’s before or during a race, drivers and their teams need to have a plan that is ready to be executed as they vie for a win.

NASCAR ACTION THIS WEEKEND

Saturday, May 13

at 7:30 PM (ET)

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway

Tune In: FS1 and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90

Friday, May 12

at 8:30 PM (ET)

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Toyota Tundra 250 at Kansas Speedway

Tune In: FS1 and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90

*The NASCAR

XFINITY Series is off and will return May 27*

UPCOMING EVENTS AT HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY

May 12

High Performance Driving Experience

May 12

Fast Lane Friday presented by The Ticket Clinic

May 13 Performance Driving Group

May 14

Miami Exotic Auto Racing

May 20

Sports Car Club of America

May 26

High Performance Driving Experience

May 27-28

Formula & Automobile Racing Association

June 3-4 Championship Cup Series Motorcycle Racing

2017 HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY NASCAR DATES

Nov. 19

Ford EcoBoost 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race

Nov. 18

Ford EcoBoost 300 XFINITY Series Championship Race

Nov. 17

Ford EcoBoost 200 Camping World Truck Series Championship Race

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