As spring turns into summer, NASCAR has done an admirable job of weathering the COVID-19 storm. Last month, stock car racing became the first major American sport to return to regular competition. Aside from weather delays, most races have gone off without a hitch. Midweek competition has been a worthy experiment that the sanctioning body will probably try again in the near future.
NASCAR also faced a difficult climate brought on by social unrest across the United States. With the American sports world watching, the sanctioning body made some firm decisions about what they must value and represent. Sunday night’s (June 21) noose incident notwithstanding, the sport has attempted to take major steps toward progress.
However, the NASCAR industry is no longer free of COVID-19 cases. News broke this past weekend that two Stewart-Haas Racing employees and one from Team Penske had tested positive. In all three cases, the team members in question are not part of the road crew for any car, so the risk of exposure for personnel at the track is minimal. Yet with cases on the rise in several regions of the country, including North Carolina, it is worth wondering what NASCAR would do if the number of positive cases within the industry kept climbing. Racing can go on with a few cases, but what happens if a large number of competitors, particularly the drivers, all get infected at once?
At this point, NASCAR has run a significant chunk of its Cup Series season. Talladega will be the 13th race of the year with another two set to run at Pocono Raceway during the last weekend of June. Some reshuffling of the schedule and quick thinking by the sanctioning body has allowed for a lot of races to be run in a relatively short time.
The problem is that the rest of the season does not allow for as much flexibility. Due to commitments with the tracks and TV broadcast partners, NASCAR cannot switch around the schedule of the playoffs like it has done for the regular season. Any scheduling changes would have to come from the remaining regular season races. Beyond the Pocono doubleheader, NASCAR has definitive race dates set for events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 5), Kentucky Speedway (July 11), Texas Motor Speedway (July 19), Kansas Speedway (July 23) and New Hampshire Motor Speedway (August 2).
Completing the regular season would probably involve doubleheader weekends at Dover International Speedway and Michigan International Speedway. That would pair with one-time events at Watkins Glen International and Daytona International Speedway to hit the 26-race mark.
But what happens if the spread of COVID-19 causes further interference to NASCAR’s plans? If the sanctioning body has to absolutely stop racing for a period of more than a few weeks, getting all of those races in before the playoffs begin seems unlikely. A longer outbreak could stretch the postponement into the playoffs themselves or, in a worst-case scenario, wipe out the rest of the 2020 season. Certainly, NASCAR hopes to get the rest of its races in, but as the old saying goes, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
As long as COVID-19 is a threat, NASCAR should have (and, in all likelihood, already has) a plan in place for what constitutes a complete season. If competition stops for good this year before or during the playoffs, who wins the championship? What criteria will NASCAR use to determine who the champion is? Or, is there a champion at all?
If NASCAR does not make it to the playoffs this year, the fairest thing to do would be to award the championship to the overall points leader. Remember that the sanctioning body has recognized a regular season champion after race 26 for the last three years and could do something similar if the 2020 season is shortened. Also note that the regular season champion is whoever is first in overall points, not the driver with the most wins or playoff points. The benefits of having those bonuses do not really kick in until the playoffs begin, anyway. That means it would not be like NASCAR is taking points away from a driver who has already earned them. Falling back on overall points would provide the most accurate picture as to who the 2020 champion should be.
Concluding the season during the playoffs presents a much more challenging situation. The current postseason format includes so many point resets and adjustments that a driver’s points position can change drastically from one week to the next. Could NASCAR make any kind of fair ruling regarding a champion under those conditions?
The sanctioning body could always fall back on overall points to determine who wins the title (though the unlikely scenario of the overall point leader being eliminated from the playoffs at the time the season ends presents an awkward situation.) Or, if NASCAR knew that the end of the season was imminent, it could make the first race in one of the preliminary rounds the championship race, only with 16/12/8 drivers eligible instead of the usual four.
It would be a highly unpalatable situation, for sure. But given the nature of the playoffs, NASCAR may find itself forced to choose the least bad option for crowning a champion.
Unless, of course, there is no champion. The other option left for NASCAR is to declare that only the original 36-race season with a 10-race playoff will be considered a complete season and that anything short of that will not count toward a championship. Perhaps it would be the easiest way out for the sanctioning body to not make any judgment calls about who wins the title.
Yet from a fan and competitor standpoint, that seems like the worst option of all. The sport’s not four races into the season anymore. All involved know who the weekly contenders are and have an idea of which drivers and teams have shown the level of performance required to win a championship. Ideally, those teams and drivers would be tested over the course of a long season or the playoffs. But a season that stretches over several months should be complete enough, given the circumstances. NASCAR’s postseason does not have to be the final arbiter in determining who the best driver of the year is. In fact, it often doesn’t do that even in a typical year, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Hopefully, the 2020 NASCAR season will have some kind of resolution. It is not out of the question for it to continue without any further interruptions. But no one really knows where the COVID-19 crisis will take this country in the coming months. If the pandemic puts racing on hold again, NASCAR will have to make some very tough decisions about how to conclude the 2020 season — if it can at all.