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Dr Diandra: Does limited practice limit NASCAR Cup drivers?

The Next Gen era is perhaps the biggest paradigm shift in NASCAR history: A confluence of owners struggling with rising competition costs, a complete re-imagining of the race car, and COVID putting everything from pit stops to practice back on the drawing board.

Eight races into the 2022 season, the car -- and the era -- remain works in progress. With minimal practice, the “run what you brung” approach means that Denny Hamlin wins at Richmond one week, and then struggles to finish on the lead lap the next week at Martinsville.

The Next Gen car was supposed to put racing back in the drivers’ hands. But is making a driver’s race so highly dependent on arriving at the track with an as-close-to-perfect set-up as possible really doing that?

NASCAR expands as it contracts

NASCAR, like many companies, has consolidated over the years. That’s more than just going from 43 cars per race to 40.

In 2000, 43 different owners ran at least one Cup-level race. By 2021, that number had dropped to 20, with each owner running more cars. Computer simulations of tires, suspensions and aerodynamics became a pre-requisite for winning, and teams hired engineers. When NASCAR started sharing huge amounts of in-car data, race teams hired data scientists.

Manufacturers were in position to see redundant effort within their teams and find ways to centralize their support. Today, manufacturers play a much more pronounced role in NASCAR.

Nowhere is that role more important than in preparing to race without much practice.

Limiting practice

COVID proved that NASCAR could get by with less practice — but not zero practice. Teams need at least a brief run on the track to eliminate any obvious problems.

Cutting practice sessions makes sense. Shortening race weekends cuts costs for everyone, including fans. Less practice time reduces the likelihood a team needs a backup car, thus saving owners money.

But I always enjoyed following a team’s radio during practices. It’s watching a science experiment in real time. The driver explains how the car feels and the crew chief translates that into a softer spring, a higher tire pressure, or more shock rebound.

That’s gone now. At most tracks, teams get around 15-20 minutes of practice. Qualifying follows without so much as a trip to the garage in-between.

“It’s really not a practice session,” Andy Graves, executive competition engineering, technical director for Toyota Racing Development said. “It’s simply a warm-up. It does give you a little bit of an idea and you’re able to walk away from that and do some work overnight.”

But, he explained, even if you can glean information from a short time on track, there isn’t much teams can do with it. Most of the set-up is locked-in at the shop. Make too many changes and you start the race from the back.

“You certainly don’t have as many tuning knobs as you did when we had two and three practice sessions,” Richard Johns, performance engineer at Ford Performance, said.

Not everyone misses those extended practice sessions.

“I love it,” Eric Warren, Chevrolet director of NASCAR programs, said. “I see it as a challenge. It puts a premium on getting your performance right from the start.”

Of course, Chevrolet has won five of the eight races thus far in 2022. They won 19 of 36 races in 2021, when there was even less practice. Chevrolet’s changes, including Warren’s hiring in 2019, were propelled by owners and team members who had developed personal relationships despite being fierce competitors.

A stacked vertical bar graph showing the number of manufacturer wins by year from 2001-2022

The rising role of manufacturers

With Ford and Chevy each running 15 full-time cars, you would expect them to have a huge advantage in figuring out the Next Gen. But more isn’t always better.

“There’s a point where there’s too many teams and you’re dividing attention and resources,” Warren said. On the other hand, “Different people look at data from different angles. We need those other viewpoints.”

The Next Gen car’s sole-source parts facilitate cooperation among teams with the same manufacturer.

“There’s a lot less secretive stuff in the chassis and the body,” Johns said. “The communication is far more open.”

Toyota’s support model has always focused on fewer teams and more concentrated attention. But having only six cars and two teams in Cup means that Toyota faces the same challenge as their competitors, but with one-third the data from each race.

“I think with the old car,” Graves said, “it was more of a benefit for us to have fewer teams. But right now, everyone’s drinking out of a firehose and you’re so desperate for every piece of data you can get.”

“The first half of the year has been character building,” Graves said. “But I don’t really feel like I need any more character.”

Simulated practice

The manufacturers’ most significant contributions to their teams are in areas that are simply too large and expensive for a single team to pursue on their own. First on that list are driver simulators. And that returns us to the question of putting racing back in the drivers’ hands.

Simulators attempt to replicate the feel and response of a specific car set-up at a particular track. A manufacturer’s driver simulator is to a video game as the Mona Lisa is to a stick figure.

Building the physical simulator isn’t that hard. The real power is the ones and zeros driving the machinery.

“It’s gone from a lot less working on hardware,” Graves said, “and it’s become software warfare.”

That ‘warfare’ extends to engineers creating computer models of their ‘soldiers’. Most develop a generic driver model that can be specialized to incorporate each driver’s specific preferences. The data for those virtual drivers comes from the real drivers behind the simulator wheel.

Drivers use the simulator before and after a race. The sessions before prepare the driver to race and help engineers determine optimal setups. The after-race sessions tell the engineers what did and didn’t work so they can modify the simulation software.

“They (the drivers) understand that the more that they can dedicate their time to help us, it will pay off in the long run,” Graves said.

And that is where drivers play an even bigger role than they played back when they were dialing in cars during multiple practice sessions at the track.

“I think that it does put it back in the hands of the drivers,” Johns argues. “It’s just in a little bit different manner.”

Drivers can be even more integral contributors to determining that initial setup. Their work just happens on a simulator instead of at the track.

“Our guys are buying into it as we make our tools better,” Johns said. “The driver really needs to be on top of what they’re feeling and what they need.”

Johns suspects the reason so many younger drivers have won early in the season is that they’re more experienced translating what they feel in the simulator to the real car.

Toyota’s Graves agrees. But he expects the veteran drivers to catch up.

“Maybe some of the younger guys have adapted a little bit faster or quicker,” he said. “I think the second half of the year, you’re gonna see a combination of youth and experience that’s gonna make up the top pack of drivers that start moving away.”