Race Weekend Central

There’s No Place Like Home

Getting older is sometimes difficult to accept. Especially when traveling with reduced flexibility. The calendar says I’m just entering my fifth decade, but my arthritis says otherwise. Given my stiff lower back and hips, and all the related aches and pains that come with such an ailment, I’m always thrilled once I return to the safety and security of home.

There’s a certain sense of relief when back in familiar surroundings. There was a time, especially years ago when I was working occasionally with a Sprint Cup pit crew, when being on the road meant being in my element. The airports, the rental cars, the hotels, the restaurants, and even the long drives to events on some weekends was what kept me energized and active.

And it’s not as if I was out tearing up the town. It was usually just the opposite. After a long trip or a long day at the track, I was happy to settle in with a quick meal and some quiet time catching up on reading or just watching television. Some weekends I stayed with friends or family near the places where we raced. Those visits tended to be more social than most, but things never (or at least rarely) got out of hand. Being on the road with NASCAR in those days was both exciting and interesting.

But that was way back then. As I write this, I’m sitting before sunrise at my gate in the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The aircraft that will carry me to Chicago is at the end of the ramp, and I am – happily – at the end of my trip out west.

Much the same might be said of folks currently working in the Sprint Cup Series. After three weeks of events in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California, Cup teams were back home for their first weekend off since the middle of February. It’s a nice gesture by NASCAR to keep Easter weekend open; the holiday falls at a point when teams need time at home with their families. Sure, some team members traveled to-and-from the West between races, but that much travel (even on private aircraft) can wear out even the healthiest and hardiest of employees.

So Sprint Cup teams enjoyed a much-deserved weekend off and the added benefit of running the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway this coming Sunday. Nothing like a short track located a short distance from home to cure what ails you.

Racing at Martinsville will likely take some attention from the new low downforce package we’ve been oohing-and-ahhing about the past few weeks. Martinsville will be a return to the style of racing Cup drivers did when they were working their way up the competitive ladder – cars slipping and sliding on worn tires in a confined space. Downforce has never been a concern on the flat, paperclip-shaped layout in rural Virginia, but track position and pit location will be two serious priorities for everyone on the starting grid.

And add managing brakes to that list. We’ve already seen what excessive brake use can do to tire beads, and Martinsville is the home of glowing-red calipers and rotors. Last weekend’s rest will soon be replaced by wrestling with setups in order to generate speed without generating too much heat.

While the many demands of being on the road taxed race teams over the past month, the demands of finding Victory Lane for the STP 500 will be even more challenging. As the first-half of the Sprint Cup schedule unspools, each event will be treated as yet another test of the new low downforce package. Trial-and error will be matched with computer models and engineers’ notes to determine the best approaches for winning races and making the postseason. The road to the Chase intersects Victory Lane, and that’s the journey all teams desperately want to make.

And as with all journeys, the best place to start is from home.

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