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Unpredictability ahead as NASCAR gets on Daytona road course

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Unpredictability is as much a part of racing at Daytona International Speedway as bumping, drafting and the Big One.

The high-banked oval routinely delivers wild rides, harrowing wrecks and dramatic finishes. Drivers expect the unexpected. It’s part of the lore and lure of NASCAR’s hometown track.

It’s about to rise to another level.

NASCAR takes to the retooled road course at Daytona this weekend for what surely will be a unique — unprecedented, really — experience for dozens of drivers who have only raced it online.

No practice. No qualifying. Just climb through the window and go — as fast as you can through a tricky layout with unknowns all around. No biggie.

The Xfinity Series race is Saturday, followed a day later by the Truck Series and the Cup Series.

“It’s going to be something to watch,” Team Penske driver and 2015 Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano said. “There are just so many questions to answer. You can’t really answer them until you get there.”

Like most of his teammates and competitors, Logano has taken to a simulator in hopes of finding his bearings around the 14-turn, 3.57-mile road course. Logano’s hot take: “I still stink at it.”

“You’re making laps and at least figuring out what turn is coming up next, but you have to take everything with a grain of salt,” he said. “It’s a simulator. How do you build a car for it? How much faith do you put in the simulator? How big are the curbs in the bus stop? How do you prepare for the load of the cars in those big corners? It’s not like you can change anything so what you have is what you have. Who the heck knows!”

Logano, the 2018 Cup Series champion, is one of the more accomplished drivers in the field. What about guys without the same pedigree?

“I think that’s going to be super, super difficult for everybody,” Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase 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. We can run (simulations) 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.”

Kyle Busch (Cup) and AJ Allmendinger (Xfinity) should have an advantage, albeit in vastly different cars, heading to Daytona. Both ran the Rolex 24 endurance race on the road course in January. It was Busch’s first venture into sports car racing and Allmendinger’s 14th entry in the twice-around-the-clock event.

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson (seven starts), Michael McDowell (five) and Kurt Busch (two) are the only current Cup drivers with multiple Rolex starts. Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Timmy Hill have one apiece. Kenseth and Ryan Newman have victories on the Daytona road course, each winning IROC races in the mid-2000s.

Even so, the layout this weekend will be slightly different from the Rolex. NASCAR added a chicane at the exit of Turn 4 that will provide another passing zone and another chance to screw up. The extra twist ensures that no driver in the field has turned actual laps on this exact course.

While Busch and Allmendinger surely provided teammates help learning the track’s nuances, many teams eager to gain an advantage turned to road course experts for assistance this week.

Joe Gibbs Racing drivers got tips from Lexus sports car driver Jack Hawksworth. Hendrick Motorsports drivers Alex Bowman and William Byron got a similar session from Corvette ace Jordan Taylor.

“When you look at it on a track map, it looks pretty basic, but each corner has little tricks that can help you,” Taylor said. “They’re going into this race with zero practice and zero laps on this track so they need as much preparation as they can get.”

No doubt. But there’s also something interesting about the unfamiliar, and the drivers realize and embrace it.

“With unprecedented times here in 2020, I think the call from NASCAR to make this unprecedented move is brilliant,” Kurt Busch said. “With no practice and no qualifying and just jumping straight into the race, why not? We’ve done everything in 2020 so far to overcome all these hurdles. I think the fun factor this weekend has got everybody’s anxiety level up.

"But also the challenge that’s right in front of us because it’s basically a wild card-style race where you could see a driver and a team that don’t normally make the playoffs punch their ticket.”

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