DAYTONA BEACH — In some previous duel races at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR driver Austin Dillon wouldn’t have minded a crash. His backup car might have been better than the one he wrecked.
“That’s not the case this year,” Dillon said Wednesday, “because the backup’s sitting in Welcome, N.C.”
Blame it on the supply chain. Some of the same problems affecting inventory at grocery stores and car dealerships will play a significant role in Thursday’s duel races and Sunday’s Daytona 500.
The issue begins with NASCAR Cup Series’ Next Gen cars, which are debuting after three years of discussion, development and testing. In earlier generations, teams would design and manufacture parts at their own shops, so some of Team Penske’s pieces were slightly different from the ones at Stewart-Haas Racing or Front Row Motorsports. Not anymore.
NASCAR requires teams to buy most of their Next Gen parts from vendors, giving everyone the same equipment. That should put more control in drivers’ hands and, theoretically, level the playing field between powerhouses and the one-car teams. The problem is that some of those vendors have been backed up.
“We’re not immune to the world,” NASCAR senior vice president of racing innovation John Probst said after last month’s Daytona test. “We’re seeing COVID and supply chains being delayed and some of the distribution being delayed a little bit.”
Those delays have been playing out for weeks at shops like Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing for weeks. If a part comes in on a Friday, workers on the floor are stuck working through the weekend.
“We can’t lose that time,” said team co-owner and driver Brad Keselowski.
Time’s up, even as inventory is down. Haulers usually arrive at this famed 2½-mile tri-oval with an extra car or two per team. Now, Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney said, they have only a couple extra cars over an entire organization.
Dillon isn’t the only driver without a backup car on site. As of Tuesday, at least two top teams (Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing) didn’t have backups here, either, according to Fox Sports. Kyle Busch said Joe Gibbs Racing’s extra cars are earmarked for next week at California or the week after in Las Vegas.
That means the effects of the supply chain will continue into the season, starting with the Thursday duel that sets the 500 field. Drivers must weigh their desire to learn more about the cars, gain a better starting position for Sunday’s race and earn points against the need to avoid a costly crash that would hinder them in the 500 (or the West Coast swing).
The specific balance depends on the team and driver.
“I think as soon as you get scared of crashing and those types of things, you’re never going to win,” said Joey Logano, a former Daytona 500 and series champion. “I’m going to go race. If we crash, so be it. We’ll figure it out.”
The six drivers vying for the final four spots in the 500 will take a similar approach. There’s no point to saving anything for next week if the only goal is to make Sunday’s field. But for Petty GMS Motorsports, the calculus is different.
“We cannot — we cannot — wreck this car,” driver Erik Jones said.
The supply chain issues transcend one series. Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse said his sprint car team ordered an engine in November. He hopes to have it by April, because parts are scarce.
Certain meats are, too. Track president Frank Kelleher said one vendor was scrambling to find a source for premium cuts due to last-minute menu changes.
Drivers at Wednesday’s media day were optimistic the problems will be over soon. Joe Gibbs Racing got a new car or two this week. Keselowski expects things to be back to normal sometime this summer.
But that won’t help anyone this weekend at one of the largest sporting events in the country.
“It’s a weird spot to be in for our biggest race of the year,” driver Tyler Reddick said, “but we’re trying to navigate it as smart as possible.”