Excitement builds as NASCAR prepares for the Daytona Road Course

The names read like a list of motorsports legends: Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Hurley Haywood, Scott Pruett, Scott Dixon. All these storied racing champions have won trophies for their work driving the Daytona International Speedway Road Course.

And this weekend, for the first time in its 61-year history, Daytona International Speedway’s road course will host regular season points races in all three NASCAR national series.

The iconic Daytona high-banked 2.5-mile superspeedway where NASCAR’s best traditionally race (including twice this season) will instead be replaced just this weekend by the facility’s 3.61-mile, 14-turn road course – a necessity as the sport schedules around COVID-19 hot spots.

And while the vast majority of the drivers competing don’t have much experience on the track’s famous road course alternative – that incorporates both the speedway’s high-banked turns and a tight, technical infield section – there is a lot of excitement about the competitive possibilities.

“It’s a fun track,” seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson said. “It might seem like a surprise to some, but in my mind, I felt like it would be a good option.

“It’s fun just doing different things, new things and this year has brought a lot of that. There’s silver lining moments we’re all experiencing with this pandemic. You look at the schedule and races moving around and Daytona being an example of that with the road course, it’s nice to have something a little different, especially where I sit with my career and looking for new experiences.”

Johnson, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is easily one of the most experienced on the Daytona Road Course among current NASCAR Cup Series regulars who will be competing in Sunday’s Go Bowling 235 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). He’s competed in seven Rolex 24 at Daytona IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship races (2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011) on the Daytona Road Course finishing runner-up twice (2005 and 2008). The only other active Cup driver this weekend to make that many Rolex 24 starts (seven) is Front Row Motorsport’s Michael McDowell (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012); he scored his career-best finish in the event (third) in 2012.

Among the NASCAR Cup Series field, reigning champion Kyle Busch is the most recent to compete on the road course. He drove a GTD-class Toyota Lexus-RCF in the 2020 Rolex 24, finishing 26th overall, ninth in class.

Busch said he is curious how the heavier stock cars will do on the course compared to the sportscar he drove in January. And while he says those few with experience in the Rolex 24 sportscar race – such as his brother Kurt Busch (2005, 2008), championship leader Kevin Harvick (2002), Clint Bowyer (2013), Matt Kenseth (2005), Brendan Gaughan (2011), Timmy Hill (2012), McDowell, Johnson and himself – will have some edge on the field, he is not sure how that sportscar “feel” will carry over to NASCAR’s stock cars.

“I think anytime you’re able to go to a race track and gain some experience, run some laps obviously it helps with the visuals, how the corners transition and so on,” said Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

“There’s definitely, I hope anyway, there’s a little added advantage there, but the cars I drove in the spring that GTD class, they’re very technologically- advanced with the brakes, traction control so a lot of things you can really attack with those cars plus a lot of downforce, not a lot of power and they’re lighter.

“Our [NASCAR Cup Series] cars are going to be heaver, more power, less braking ability, everything is going to be opposite. It’s going to be like driving a 1960s Cadillac around the track. Certainly, though if you can learn from what driving technique it took to drive that car and apply it to the Cup car, then you’ll get up to speed relatively quicker than some of the other guys probably.”

For more than a decade NASCAR’s road courses featured a tight battle between the sport’s all-time road course aces – now-retired NASCAR Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart who have a combined 17 wins at the Sonoma (Calif.) and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) courses where the series has traditionally competed.

Among the current drivers, driver standings leader Kevin Harvick, 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. and Busch are the only current drivers with victories at both Sonoma and The Glen. Truex’s four road course wins – three at Sonoma and one at Watkins Glen – are most among active drivers. Busch has three wins – two at Sonoma and one at The Glen.

Fan favorite Brendan Gaughan is the only NASCAR Cup Series race entrant this weekend with a past victory at the Daytona Road Course earning the GT3 class win in the 2011 Rolex 24.

In the NASCAR Xfinity Series race, championship contenders Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe both competed in GT races at Daytona prior to the Rolex 24 this year. Cindric has three previous Rolex 24 race starts.

A.J. Allmendinger, who has provided the capital E in Excitement for the Xfinity Series road course events already this year – at both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last month and Road America last week – returns to drive the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet. He’s a past overall winner in the Rolex 24 – earning the 2012 trophy. He was runner-up in 2006 and third in 2013. He finished runner-up to race winner Cindric last week at Road America. Allmendinger earned his first NASCAR Cup Series victory at Watkins Glen, N.Y. in 2014.

Sportscar champion Andy Lally, the 2011 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year and a four-time Rolex 24 at Daytona class champion, will be back behind the wheel of the No. 02 Chevrolet in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Daytona. Last week he raced from a 23rd place start at Road America to earn an impressive fifth-place finish in that Xfinity Series road course event.

He is certainly optimistic about bettering that showing this week at Daytona considering the hours and miles he’s logged on the famed road course.

“I am extremely excited for the race and for the opportunity to drive a stock car on a track I have probably raced on more than any other race track on the planet after almost 20 years doing the Daytona 24-hour and a handful of years doing the Paul Revere [sports car race] on the same [Daytona] circuit,” Lally said. “It is very cool to go there with the stock cars and I think it’s going to produce some awesome racing.

“I think a lot of people are looking at it as sort of a simple layout but when you have asphalt that’s aged and sun-soaked, it’s definitely going to pose some unique set-up options and aspects to how the race will go, how tire-wear will go. I think it’s going to be pretty challenging for everybody, including myself.”

Johnson, Busch and Lally conceded that the advantage to competing on this new venue without any qualifying or practice laps is the new-age reliance on simulators that most drivers have been using for weeks to prepare for this highly-anticipated Daytona schedule anomaly.

They are optimistic about the level of competition from the drop of the green flag.

“A hundred drivers maybe are going to be experiencing the [road course] track for the first time, but most of them will have hours on the sim,” Lally said. “For drivers of this caliber, though, in most scenarios, it just takes 10 laps or so to get really good. Three laps to get it right and 10 laps to get it really good and then spend another 20 years perfecting that.”

“For me, it’s huge because I have not sat in one of these cars in two years [other than Elkhart Lake race],” Lally added. “To go no practice, no qualifying straight into race means I’m gonna buckle into car, do a couple pace laps at slow speed then go race.

“That’s going to be something.”

And that’s exactly what NASCAR fans are expecting.