Where has the time gone? This time of year, I’d normally be preparing for my annual family trip to the Jersey Shore. But this year, with all the travel restrictions and the variability of what businesses can and can’t be open, when they can and can’t be open, and how many customers they can accommodate at once, there’s just too many variables to even attempt to keep our annual tradition alive. I don’t know if it’s just here in the Northeast where we are well known for our uncouth manners, but even a trip to the grocery store risks an encounter with what I call the “Cart Nazis.” These are typically young men who are on a hormonal power trip because they and they alone control who may and may not enter the store. I get the need for social distancing, but I shop in the early morning hours when the parking lots are still ghost towns and of course I dutifully don my mask. More than once I’ve had an older market employee roll their eyes at the nasty little piss-ant and wave me inside with an apology. This week I was told my flip-flops ran afoul of the “no shoes, no shirt, no service” adage. Sandals were fine, but not flip flops. So I walked back to my Jeep, pulled on a set of insulated high-top Timberland boots (it was 92 degrees out that day), fired the Hemi up and drove to another market.
Thus I am still in summertime (in fact I did in fact wake last night to the sound of thunder … c’mon kids, you know the song). Yet somehow they tell me that there are only three races left until whatever we are calling NASCAR’s postseason this year. Yep, three races left in the regular season, and two of them are in Dover on consecutive days. What’s “regular” about that? Then the focus shifts to what had been for decades the Firecracker 400, on or around the Independence Day weekend. That’s not so normal either. Having who makes the playoffs even in part decided by a plate race (sorry, tapered-spacer race) is like having the Olympics sprint races held on a track littered with land mines.
Truth be told, there’s no way anything about the 2020 Cup season can be termed “regular.” Things started out normally enough at the Daytona 500 in February and moved dutifully onto Fontana, Las Vegas and Phoenix with only epic amounts of rain screwing up the party. By the time we got to Phoenix (sorry), there was talk of some new strain of super-flu some labeled “the China Virus.” And the jungle drums that week began to signal that that weekend’s race (and perhaps even subsequent races) would need to be postponed. “For the flu?” I recall thinking to myself. Would that I could return to that ignorant state of innocence. It would in fact be another two months and nine days before the Cup series returned to action at Darlington, with Kevin Harvick taking the win. No, he didn’t go on to win every race of the regular season. It just felt like that sometimes, particularly if you worked for HMS.
So what’s the friction point here, Matt, you’re preparing to ask me (with all the couth of a cart Nazi). You’ve been advocating for an earlier end to the season for years, if not decades. The sooner started, the sooner completed, right? Not in this instance, Bunky. The postseason still drags on to Nov. 8 in Phoenix (not Homestead this year). NASCAR is and has been doing its damnedest to cram in all 36 races they’d planned to hold this year, pre-pandemic. The locations of some race dates were shifted, we’ve had to get used to empty grandstands at most races, and these doubleheader weekends haven’t caught on with the fans too well, but the train is still on the track. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise (and the virus behaves itself), it looks like NASCAR will cram in all 36 events, which is like getting Rosie O’Donnell crammed in Cameron Diaz’s jeans.
Dover fans face next weekend with a bit of melancholy. NASCAR hasn’t released their 2021 Cup schedule yet (and it’s high time they did so), but we already know Dover is losing at least one of their Cup dates. Dover has had two races annually since 1971, though never before this year on the same weekend. That first year Dover had two Cup races, those races were won by Bobby Allison and Richard Petty. Yes indeed, that was a very, very long time ago.
A lot of folks mistakenly think that the date Dover is losing is being moved to the old short track in downtown Nashville that was a favorite with the fans for years. Nope. The race date goes to the Nashville Superspeedway (perhaps the first hint it’s not a short track), which is a 1.33-mile concrete track. That track opened in 2008 and hosted some truck and NXS races. None were particularly compelling, nor were they well attended. In 2014, they just shut the sucker down and tried to sell it. The old track in Nashville was the Fairgrounds, and the Cup Series can’t return there because it now shares real estate with a soccer stadium. They play soccer in Nashville now? Is Formula 1 planning to host another event in a North Jersey truck stop or a casino parking lot too? So forget about the fans wanting another Cup date at the Fairgrounds. Sorry, Dad. I guess when I said I’d love a puppy for Christmas, I should have specified I wanted a live one, not this home maggot farm.
So what storylines will fans watch play out over the rest of the season?
Will Jimmie Johnson win again?
It was once unthinkable we’d be discussing the former seven-time Cup titlist being mired in a 100-race-plus winless slump as he prepared to end his storied Cup career, at least as a full-time driver. On a brighter note for JJ’s fans, the tour returns to Dover not once but twice in the coming weeks. The Monster Mile was in fact the sight of Johnson’s last points-paying win, way back on June 4, 2017. For the record, that was 1,170 days ago. (Of note, that victory was one of 11 Cup wins by Johnson at Dover.) Last Sunday at Daytona, however, Johnson’s fourth-place finish was his first top-five Cup result since Bristol in late May, 13 races ago.
Johnson shares the record for the most titles with Petty and Dale Earnhardt. As a longtime fan of the King, I do recall Petty’s shocking winless streak between Daytona in July of 1984 and his last race at Atlanta, an event I still recall as the greatest Cup race ever. It was difficult for his fans, especially when Petty started failing to qualify for races or had to request a relief driver halfway through events. But at least Petty got to leave the fair on his own terms and his own two feet. Earnhardt did not.
When will Kyle Busch win again?
I can’t bring myself to consider that Busch might be mired in a long winless drought like Johnson’s. Temperamental and contentious though he is, Busch is one of those drivers who can whip off three or four wins at a time and seems to delight in pissing off many fans by doing so out of nowhere. I find it interesting that shortly before Busch went into his slump, the JGR Toyotas were having some big issues getting the geometry of their rear suspensions through tech either prior to or after races. Perhaps NASCAR found something and put those teams on notice. I’ll go on record as saying that my guess is Busch will win one or more races this year, but won’t equal the five wins he enjoyed last season.
So Who Wins This Year’s Title?
NASCAR has devised the damnedest dog and pony show method of crowning a champion ever committed to paper. A pox on that document. Any driver who can make the playoff lineup and avoid getting cut can show up at Phoenix and win the championship by winning the race … or even by finishing the best of the four drivers left contending for that honor. Yep, beats all you ever saw. It does seem that NASCAR is giving drivers like Harvick and Denny Hamlin gifts at least as far as lining up the field based on a bizarrely complex set of calculations that emphasize finishing position in the previous race and the regular-season points (during this highly irregular season). When you’re reading a prospectus for a potential new investment you’re considering, right down there near the bottom you’ll see a line that goes something like, “Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.”
What Will the 2021 Cup Schedule Look Like?
Recall back when most people thought COVID was an operating system like Basic or Fortran. NASCAR was promising there were going to be wholesale changes to next year’s schedule, and that schedule was going to be released sooner rather than later. Still waiting. Already we know that the big changes to the cars won’t be coming until 2022 at the earliest. But trying to use the same packages and schedule we used this year as we cobbled it together after the pandemic threw a stink bomb in the lavatory won’t work either.
How Low Can They Go?
For a few weeks there, NASCAR ruled the roost as far as live sports in the free world went. There was no March Madness. Now, the Stanley Cup and NBA Playoffs are just beginning. Baseball seems to have issues getting things rolling again but is picking up a little momentum. The NFL season is still very much in doubt. Pro football is the 900-pound ape in the room when it comes to professional sports on TV, so even the loss of the NFL preseason games is a blessing to NASCAR. But keeping our eyes on our own papers, NASCAR hasn’t fared so well in the ratings since the competition began returning (or at least got up from the bar at the strip club and started towards the host hotel). I had a long, interesting conversation with a TV executive type years ago. He told me that any race that drew a rating number that started with a 2 was an embarrassment to the sport. Any race rating that started with a 1 (still an unthinkable low number back then) was analogous to what you’d expect from bored housecats strolling the couch and accidentally stepping on the remote. Well guess what? The Saturday Cup race from Michigan drew a 1.0 rating. Let me repeat that. A One Point fricking Zero. Last Sunday’s Cup race did a little better but not much. It ended up with a 1.4 rating. What’s going on? Well for one thing, every remaining Cup race fan I know has long since seen the big 4-0 in the rearview mirror. I turned 61 today. The time of our time has come and gone, with all due apologies to that Steely Dan dude.
Will the Show Go On?
Predicting the course of the pandemic is a fool’s errand. We got a troubling reminder of that this weekend when Austin Dillon was diagnosed with COVID-19. While hoping for the best, I have to acknowledge that the season continuing to the end, or even to the end of the regular season, is tenuous at best. One flare-up in the garage area could derail the entire party. You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.
Where Did Everybody Go?
Related to the above. It’s already been announced there will be no fans in the grandstands for the two Dover races. What about during the playoffs? Which, if any, of those races will fans be allowed to attend if they choose to? It’s hard to predict. Each state has its own rules and “advisories” as to the size of crowds allowed to attend outdoor sporting events. And those rules seem to change on a weekly basis. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Elected officials have to react as statistics change. And quite frankly, the issue of educating children, whether it be at home or online, should be utmost in those politicians’ minds. Not whether or not fans can go to a stock car race or a ballgame. I’d love to see the fans being able to attend races again, but not until the numbers indicate that it can be done safely. And that decision must be made on science, not with an eye toward profit and loss statements.
Who Gets the No. 48 Ride For 2021?
While they’ve fallen from the glory days, a seat at the wheel of one of Rick Hendrick’s once dominant rides is a plum assignment for a driver eager to compete for race wins and even titles. Cross Brad Keselowski off the list, at least for next year. Toyota is determined to hang on to Christopher Bell. Erik Jones? Never say never. Some fans and media sorts have even suggested that with his farewell tour in tatters, perhaps Johnson won’t retire after all. That’s wishful thinking on those folks’ parts. Johnson has said nothing to indicate he’s given any thought to going for one more swing at the piñata.
What’s “Normal” Mean Now?
I don’t like the term “new normal.” It seems to indicate the “old normal” ain’t coming back. Presuming this pandemic is behind us prior to February 2021 and a vaccine is widely available, will there be practice and qualifying prior to the races again? I assume that the Daytona 500 will still be the first race of 2021. Will the 150-mile qualifying races still be held? I’d prefer that to deciding the lineup based on how a driver finished at Phoenix this autumn and where he ended up in the standings in 2020. A new season is supposed to be a fresh start for everyone. But a lot of senior NASCAR types really seem to have embraced this “no practice/no qualifying” model, claiming it has improved the quality of the racing. Can’t see it from my house.
The good old days
Might not return
And rocks might melt
And the seas might burn
Hang on for a bumpy flight ahead.