(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

NASCAR 101: The Facts On A NASCAR 2020 Return From COVID-19

It’s official: the NASCAR 2020 season is ending its two-month hiatus. The sport announced Thursday (April 30) they’ll lift their on-track suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic and get back to racing in all three of its top divisions by the end of May.

Here’s all the details you need to know before the green flag flies on NASCAR once again.

Like, first, the schedule.

So far, NASCAR has only released May race dates.  Further races will largely depend on whether the COVID-19 numbers remain stable as the country reopens. The situation remains fluid; North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, for example said an increase in cases could cause him to shut down racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway later this month.

Fans should expect NASCAR to wait and see how the first event goes before seeing a full schedule. But based on Thursday’s announcement, here’s where we stand.

First up: Darlington Raceway

Sunday, May 17: NASCAR Cup Series; 3:30 ET on FOX (400 miles, 293 laps)

Tuesday, May 19: NASCAR Xfinity Series; 8:00 ET on FOX Sports 1 (200 miles, 147 laps)

Wednesday, May 20: NASCAR Cup Series; 7:30 ET on FOX Sports 1 (500 kilometers, 228 laps)

Darlington? Why Darlington?

NASCAR stated how important it was for the first few races to be close to where most race shops are located in the Charlotte, N.C. area. Darlington is one state away (South Carolina) that has already reopened both retail stores and beaches since April 21. Governor Henry McMaster has said his state of emergency order runs through May 12. That means it could expire before the Cup Series invades the northeastern part of the state.

Does that mean May 17 is the new Southern 500?

No. NASCAR has stated that a few tracks will lose race dates. Sonoma Raceway will almost certainly be one; California governor Gavin Newsom has said repeatedly it could be “months” before live sports is contested in his state. Additional venues at risk due to rising COVID-19 infections in their areas could be Watkins Glen Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway.

That means, at a minimum, there will be three Cup races at Darlington this season for the first time in NASCAR history. Enjoy it!

Where do they go next?

Charlotte Motor Speedway. This one was a no brainer as it keeps race teams in close proximity to their home base. Since North Carolina has stricter stay-at-home orders in place, giving the area a few extra days to lower its caseload was important.

Sunday, May 24: NASCAR Cup Series; 6:00 ET on FOX (600 miles, 400 laps)

Monday, May 25: NASCAR Xfinity Series; 7:30 ET on FOX Sports 1 (300 miles, 200 laps)

Tuesday, May 26: NASCAR Truck Series; 8:00 ET on FOX Sports 1 (200 miles, 134 laps)

Wednesday, May 27: NASCAR Cup Series; 8:00 ET on FOX Sports 1 (500 kilometers, 208 laps)

This schedule keeps the Coca-Cola 600 on its traditional Memorial Day weekend. The two Wednesday races make up two of the missed points races, though NASCAR has not yet released which ones will be scrapped.

In summary, this schedule creates seven total events within its top three series in 11 days. It’s also the closest three NASCAR Cup races have been held since 1971.

What else is special about the Coca-Cola 600?

The race will be the first one since NASCAR’s return where they’ll allow actual qualifying to take place. The races at Darlington will be one-day shows; no practice and no qualifying allowed. Details are being worked out as to how the field will be lined up for the May 17 event at Darlington.

On the Xfinity side, Frontstretch’s Dustin Albino reported the lineup will be based off a random draw for teams that sit first through 15th in the owner standings and 16-36. Following the Xfinity race at Darlington, the top-15 finishers are set to be inverted, for the Charlotte event, six days later.

Can fans come? 

No. No fans will be allowed at any of these events. Charlotte Motor Speedway has announced that they will either issue fans a refund for tickets already purchased or give a credit toward a 2020 or 2021 race at any Speedway Motorsports Inc.-owned track at 120% of purchase value.  Fans with tickets can complete request forms at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com, email (tickets@charlottemotorspeedway.com) or call the track (800-455-FANS) with questions.

It’s unlikely that fans will be allowed on track property, too.

“That’s still a work in progress, said Senior NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell on Thursday when the schedule was announced. “Until we believe it is a safe environment and we can work with the local and state communities to make that happen, we’re going to wait until we get that OK.” In other words, until states allow large gatherings, fans will be asked to stay home.

Where do we go from there?

While more of the schedule is written, at least in pencil, we probably shouldn’t expect to see it until we know more about both the COVID-19 trends. How Darlington Raceway goes will be crucial to determining the sport’s short-term decisions.

It’s likely that additional races will also be at tracks that make a day trip from Charlotte feasible. It could mean Atlanta Motor Speedway, Martinsville Raceway, Bristol Motor Speedway and possibly Richmond Raceway would be next on tap. Virginia’s stay at home order extends until June 10, pushing Martinsville and Richmond down the list.

Pocono was already scheduled to hold a doubleheader for its summer races. O’Donnell indicated that there might be more. It’s notable that both Michigan and Dover hold their races before the playoffs begin, so they’re prime candidates to experiment. MIS, in particular, could use the extra time as Michigan has the seventh-most cases in the country.

As for who could lose a race, that also hasn’t been finalized.  Sonoma, as mentioned above, seems likely as California has been hard hit by COVID-19. Homestead-Miami Speedway could be a tough reschedule. Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, which both host two dates, might be too long of a trek for now with race teams; that could cause each one to lose one of their two race dates. It’s also unlikely we’ll see a NASCAR All-Star race this season.

O’Donnell has said that, so far, the playoff schedule has no changes on the table. The plan is for the sport’s championship weekend to still occur on schedule at Phoenix Raceway from Nov. 6-8. All races are expected to be made up.

Like everything else, though, the situation is fluid. It will depend on whether the virus makes a resurgence once more states reopen businesses and attractions.

NASCAR will also set guidelines for media attendance at races in the coming days.

While the future remains somewhat unknown, it’s a good sign that fans will see their favorites on track soon and hear the roar of real engines once again.  In the meantime, there are a few virtual races left on the dance card, including an iRacing Pro Invitational Series event at virtual Dover this weekend.

Let’s talk about how the races will work.

Once again, there will be no practice sessions for any races. It’s “run what you brung” for all series. That means teams can take fewer people to the track (they’re limited to 16 including the driver and owner) and they won’t need to take a backup car.  It cuts the amount of time people are working in close quarters as well. Only having one series on property at the time means all garages can be used for a single series, further spreading them out. Darlington will also use the drivers’ motorhome lot as garage space.

The only race to have qualifying will be the Coca-Cola 600, and that will happen on race day. The first race for each series is likely to be set by owner points, similar to how Dustin Albino reported Xfinity will line up. NASCAR hasn’t determined how lineups for future races will be set. It could be on points or by the finish of the previous event.

Also, there will be live pit stops with a full pit crew. NASCAR had considered scrapping them in favor of scheduled cautions to cut personnel at the track, but decided against it. O’Donnell explained that the sanctioning body wanted to make the races as close to normal as possible for fans, so live stops will be allowed to happen.

So…the elephant in the room.

COVID-19 is still very much a threat and it’s not going away any time soon. NASCAR has cited a shortage of tests as the reason that nobody at the track will be tested, opting instead to check for active symptoms such as fever or cough. If anyone displays symptoms, NASCAR will have a screening station set up outside a track’s infield care center, keeping that building for in-race incidents only.

Crew members will be required to wear face coverings on pit road, while spotters will be spread out to avoid contact. Anyone else entering the garage will need a mask.

What if someone tests positive?

Simple: they will have to isolate for two weeks and immediately be removed from the facility.  NASCAR has stated they will give drivers playoff waivers should they miss a race due to COVID-19.

The sport has indicated aggressive contact tracing will take place for any positive test. But it’s unknown at this point how deep it will go. Limited movement of drivers, crew members and officials has been emphasized in order to limit any contacts.

Finally, a continued season will depend on cases of the virus remaining stable.  If there is a surge in cases either nationally or locally, additional shutdowns may change where and when both NASCAR and other sports can take place.

MORE ON NASCAR 2020 RESCHEDULING

FINLEY: FOUR QUESTIONS NASCAR NEEDS TO ANSWER BEFORE A “CORONARACE”

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Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    Maybe they could call the first race the Rebel 400.

  2. Avatar

    Fascinating, races in km?

    • Avatar

      The old trick to make races sound longer than they really are.

    • Avatar

      They get to keep the “500”.

    • Avatar

      Hey, they’ve always used kilometers for Phoenix. It is insulting for them to think we don’t realize they are cheating when they label a race “500” and it’s kilometers but given the way things are, it’s a minor quibble.

      It bothers me more that they seem willing to do whatever it takes to make up races but seem unwilling to even think about altering the championship races. Like they are sacred. Makes me hope they are forced to change them up just because they don’t want to.

      • Avatar

        Not to mention that Watkins Glen (which will not happen more than likely) and the Charlotte Roval (possible replacement for one or both road courses, or use Road America possibly, as Xfinity already goes there).

  3. Avatar

    if you gonna stick close to home (Mooresville, North Carolina) why not race at Rockingham. No fans! You don’t have to worry about that. The track has safer barriers! Drop the Rag!!

  4. Avatar

    Maybe I’m missing something, but why would NH lose their race? They only have one per year, its not until July, and it isn’t as bad as some other places around the country. So this one I don’t quite get. The only thing that makes sense is the distance for race teams to travel is the issue.

    I highly doubt they are even making decisions about June yet, let alone July, so this speculation doesn’t hold much weight at the moment. My guess is Nascar will see how the first few races go and get more aggressive with scheduling assuming races can continue to be conducted without issues.