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Drivers in new territory as NASCAR shifts to Daytona Road Course

Team owner Leonard Wood could share plenty of stories with young driver Chase Elliott as NASCAR shifts to Daytona International Speedway's road course this week. Lyle Setter/Icon Sportswire

As you read this on your electronic device, your favorite NASCAR Cup Series driver is likely strapped into their own much larger electronic device, running virtual laps on a racetrack that they have never driven before, built inside a racetrack that they have all raced on so many times before. Yes, that's a weird concept to process.

Then again, so is the idea of 39 stock cars logging their first-ever laps on a layout they've never seen in actual race conditions. No practice. No qualifying. Just green, green, green and hang on for dear life.

Welcome to the GoBowling.com 235 on the Daytona Road Course, the super-crucial fourth-from-last race before the Cup Series field is slashed to its 16 playoff participants, held on a 3.61-mile, 14-turn layout that is one part Daytona oval, one part 24 Hours of Daytona road course and one part brand new literal kink in the works.

"I've never entered a race like that, where you just literally have no idea what to expect," said Chase Elliott via Zoom. Elliott was the winner of last fall's "Roval" event at Charlotte Motor Speedway and a two-time winner at Watkins Glen, the track originally scheduled for this weekend but denied its race date because of New York's COVID-19 travel restrictions. "Heck, I have no idea where I'm supposed to stop on Turn One on Sunday, or Two, Three, all the way back around to the start-finish line."

Throughout the week, multiple drivers repeated Elliott's concerns. They expressed gratitude for manufacturers' simulation rigs, such as Chevrolet's immersive Driver-in-the-Loop (DiL) system, located in Charlotte. They said they wished they had run the 24 Hours of Daytona over winter, though even that experience would have limited benefit because of that kink referenced earlier, a newly added right/left/right "mini-chicane" tucked between the high-speed exit of oval Turn Four and the start-finish line, complete with rumble strip "turtle" curbs borrowed from the Charlotte Roval.

The drivers admitted that instead of grabbing lunch or a nap in the days leading into their event, they will be glued to undercard, the ARCA, Xfinity and Truck Series races. Many peeked in at an iRacing fan event Wednesday night, which featured a digital layout of the track and commentary from NBC Sports analyst and former Dale Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Steve Letarte.

"Hey man," Clint Bowyer, never one to mince words, said in a phone interview. "This is 2020. This is just how this year goes. Watch what you can, learn what you can, but in the end it's like everything else in your life during 2020. None of us know what to expect. When it's time to go, you just hang the hell on."

Any of today's racers looking for some inspiration to go with their information would also be well-advised to leave Daytona International Speedway and travel 13 miles southeast, down to Ponce Inlet and a joint known as Racing's North Turn. The beachside bar and restaurant overlooks the spot of the original Daytona Beach and Road Course.

Where the restaurant parking lot is now, fleets of genuine stock cars would launch south down Highway A1A for two miles and then slingshot off the asphalt and onto the sands of Daytona Beach. After hammering north up the shore, with one eye on the rising tide to their right, they would break off long, ballet-like slideways approaches to reenter the North Turn, rooster tails of sand giving way to the squealing of tires as the Fords, Lincolns and Hudson Hornets grab ahold of the blacktop for another run south.

In 1998, I stood on that beach with Tim Flock, winner of back-to-back beach and road course events in 1955-56. "You know what my biggest problem was when I ran this race? The guts." I told him I could only imagine the guts it took to manhandle a tank-like Chrysler up and down the beach at 100-plus mph.

"No, man, I mean real guts! One time I swung it out too wide as the tide was coming in. I drove it through the ocean water and right through a big old flock of seagulls. I mean right through them. I spent the rest of the race covered in feathers and bird guts."

Then the drivers should follow in the tires tracks of Flock and their predecessors, up to the main intersection where the Daytona Beach tourists party. That's where they will find the Streamline Hotel. This beach used to be lined by massive resort hotels taken straight from the pages of "The Great Gatsby." During the 20th century's first three decades, tourists would come to Daytona from all over the world to watch daredevils make land speed record runs on the hard-packed white sands. But when those rocket ships moved to the high desert of Utah, the beach business dried up.

In 1935, a local gas station owner and amateur racer named Bill France persuaded the Daytona Beach city council to let him hold stock car and motorcycle races on that same beach, hoping to rekindle the tourism economy. The city lost $22,000 on that first event, but France, who finished fifth among the 27 entries, was hooked. The races restarted after World War II, and France called a meeting of those racers in the Ebony Room at the Streamline, a room that looked over that very beach. The fledgling series held its inaugural event on Feb. 15, 1948, a Modified race on the Daytona Beach and Road Course, won by Red Byron, an injured World War II veteran who had to bolt his leg brace to the clutch in order to drive.

Then, the men who will attempt to attack the Daytona road course should track down the co-owner of one of the cars that will be out there with them. NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood, 85, is a founding father of Wood Brothers Racing -- builders of the famous No. 21 Ford, currently driven by Matt Dibenedetto, who enters this weekend as the 16th-ranked bubble driver in the NASCAR Playoffs standings. Leonard's older brother and fellow Hall of Famer, Glenn, raced on the beach and did so with Leonard as his lead mechanic. Leonard's eyes glisten whenever he talks about "Brother Glenn," who died in 2019, jetting up the sand.

"One year we went way down the beach to test some things out. Glenn was driving and I was a passenger, just crouched down in the right side of the car," he said in a phone interview Thursday. "I was fiddling with the ignition timing and while he was driving I had a little chain I was tugging on and watching the tachometer."

Like Flock, the Woods had misjudged the tide waters, which had crept up under their Ford while they were concentrating on the data and had slicked up the sand. "We were really flying and that car started sliding just a little, and then we could feel our feet getting wet in the floor," Leonard recalled. With no helmets and their seat belts unattached, the men who would go on to win 99 Cup Series races were about to die before they'd even won one. "We were so sideways that I was looking straight up the beach, but I was looking out of my window on the passenger's side. Glenn did an amazing job of maintaining control and he got us straightened up and slowed down."

"He always gives me too much credit for my driving there," Glenn told me in 2016, his 70th consecutive trip to Daytona, as we had lunch at Racing's North Turn. "I was just hanging on."

Finally, if today's NASCAR stars don't feel like leaving Daytona International Speedway for a pre-road course inspiration field trip, they could always stroll down by the Turn Four tunnel, the corrugated steel tubes that were placed there by Bill France when he decided the Daytona Beach and Road Course was no longer enough and opened the World Center of Racing in 1959.

When France built the oval, he made sure to include an infield road course that incorporated sections of that oval. That original road course layout has changed little over the years, aside from tweaks here and there. Even as the 24 Hours of Daytona has grown into one of the planet's most prestigious sports car events, AMA Superbikes were added, IndyCar has tested, and, oh yeah, Sunday's Cup Series event.

Until Sunday, the last time the stock car and sports car worlds crossed over at Daytona was February 1963. Marvin Panch, a Daytona Beach and Road Course veteran and the 1961 Daytona 500 champ, was driving for the Wood Brothers but was also competing in that weekend's sports car road course race. Recalled Leonard Wood: "We were in the garage when we heard a big crash and then we saw a huge cloud of black smoke coming up down in Turn Four."

It was Panch. His Maserati had gone airborne, barrel rolled through the high-banked turns and was on fire. Tiny Lund, NASCAR's lovable giant, was in Daytona hoping to land a ride for the fifth-ever 500 and just happened to be coming out of the Turn Four tunnel when he saw Panch's crash. Lund, all 6-foot-5, 270 pounds of him, jumped the fence, dived into the flames and dragged Panch free.

"That night we were with Marvin at the hospital and we were talking about what we should do for the 500," Leonard Wood said. "He told us he wanted us to put Tiny in the car. So, we did it, and you know what? Tiny won that race. It was the biggest win of his career. It really saved his career. It was like 'Win one for the Gipper.' It was also a pretty good lesson about racing. A really good racecar driver, they will always figure a way to run up front, no matter what the circumstances."

To anyone competing in this weekend's cold open Daytona Road Course races, feel free to print out that last line and tape it to your dashboard.