Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: It’s Not Easy Being Green in NASCAR Cup Series

It was the best performance you probably didn’t notice at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday (June 9).

Until power issues ended Australian standout Will Brown’s bid, the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing driver was making things happen. Brown started 24th, out-qualifying RCR regular Kyle Busch. From there he picked his way forward with good speed and smart moves. Unfortunately for Brown, his car lost power just 32 laps into the race and while his team got the car back on track, he finished three laps down.

Brown and fellow Aussie Cam Waters, who finished 35th for RFK Racing after getting caught in a crash, won’t get another shot this year as their Supercars schedules conflict with the remainder of the road courses on the NASCAR docket.

See also
Tough Luck Doesn't Stop Will Brown, Cam Waters from Enjoying Cup Debuts

That’s a shame because something tells me they’d only get better with more laps.

One thing we’ve learned in the last year is that the Supercars superstars are the real deal.

Shane van Gisbergen’s win at the Chicago street course last summer brought that series into the consciousness of NASCAR fans, as it should have.

Van Gisbergen’s Chicago victory was exceptional.

Brown’s run on Sunday (Waters’ day ended just past halfway) was a perfect example of just how difficult it is to get into a Cup car and score a top finish in just one race. 

Sure, the RCR cars were pretty solid on Sunday. Both Busch and Austin Dillon had decent days going, Dillon wrecked early, but Busch had a top-five run derailed in the final laps. But those are full-time Cup teams. Brown’s No. 33 team is not.

Let’s break down the things that make for a Cup victory. 

Yes, the driver is, at the very least the most visible piece of the equation. At the end of the day, he has to wheel the car no matter the circumstances. It’s on him to feel out what he needs, relay it to his team and then take advantage of the adjustments they make.

It’s on his team, specifically the crew chief, to listen to what the driver is telling them and adjust the car accordingly on pit stops. There aren’t a lot of areas for them to make major changes anymore, so what they have, they have to maximize to fractions of inches. 

Sometimes, no matter how long a driver and crew chief have worked together and how well they communicate, things can get dicey. Drivers are fierce competitors, and in the heat of battle, they don’t always give the most intelligible, detailed description of how the car is handling. While describing things on track as “a monkey (expletive) a football” is colorful, it doesn’t tell the crew chief a lot about what’s actually happening. If he knows the driver well, he’ll try to make something happen despite the driver’s emotion.

But if the pair haven’t worked together long enough to develop that ability to interpret nonsense, they might as well be speaking different languages. It takes time for a driver to learn how to describe what he needs in a way that the team can give it to him. It takes more time for the team to fine-tune those needs to the individual behind the wheel.

When drivers are coming from other series and haven’t worked with the team before, not only do they have to learn the Cup cars, but also how to take what they feel and communicate that to someone who hasn’t learned exactly what to do with that information. 

Then there’s the racecar. While they’re largely the same, every driver likes something a little different. The setup one driver thrives on can be almost impossible for another to drive. Teams set up cars weeks in advance based on the driver’s preferences and driving style along with the notes they’ve put together from past races.

They don’t have that extensive info for a part-time or one-off driver. Best-case, it’s a matter of bringing a car as neutral as possible and working toward the driver’s needs, but with only one short practice most weeks, that’s gotten harder as well. In some cases, such as a substitute driver, it’s an even bigger challenge because the car was set up to the regular driver’s preferences and it’s not neutral to start with. Teams can try to find a sub with a similar style and preference, but even then it’s a guessing game.

Part-time teams have another disadvantage: their race day crew isn’t getting the week-in, week-out routine that full-time teams have. They may be using development crews or crews from another series. A NASCAR Xfinity Series crew might be great on Saturday, but the Cup cars are different animals. 

Part-time teams also run short of information.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Strategy Winners, Losers at Sonoma

Full-time teams have notebooks full of race information on this car, on this year’s tire compounds, at this type of track. They add to them weekly and refine their cars based on what they find. They may share with a part-time teammate, but there are so many gaps to fill, and again, if that driver has a different need in a car, it’s not enough.

That’s why, when a driver climbs into a car for just one race or even a handful of them, finding speed and making moves off the bat like Brown did on Sunday is a major accomplishment. There are experienced Cup drivers who can’t do that in one or two outings with a new team.

That’s why van Gisbergen’s win at Chicago last year was such a major accomplishment. For a driver to get into a car that he’s never driven and work well enough with a team he barely knows to get a car with the speed and handling to win their first time out is something Cup veterans haven’t done with ease. 

Let’s hope drivers like Brown and Waters get more chances. It sure would be fun to watch.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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