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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2020 Top NASCAR Storylines: COVID, COVID, COVID

Over the next few weeks, Frontstretch will be looking back at the top 10 stories of the season, beginning with this installment.

The nine that will come after this topic all would have been the biggest story of the year in just about any other year. Michael Jordan investing in a NASCAR team? The defending Cup Series champion almost going winless? A driver feuding with the President of the United States on Twitter?

Any of them should have been in this slot. Hell, even things we’re not covering could have been the top story any other year. Remember when Kevin Harvick put a bounty on Kyle Busch in the Camping World Truck Series? Or journalists vs. Barstool? How about when Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham announced a rival stock car series?

Sadly, this was not any other year.

This will be the biggest story in NASCAR’s history. Never say never, but the sport has never nor probably ever will again see a problem that resulted in two months of inactivity and a patchwork schedule dramatically changing the traditional race weekend setup — then, on its return, being unable to host fans for the bulk of the year and having to take dramatic steps in monitoring teams and drivers.

By March 11, anybody paying any attention to the news knew that the COVID-19 pandemic was a problem. News reports of the virus came out early in the year, and by February, President Donald Trump was already answering questions on the subject.

But that day, everything changed until further notice. In just an hour’s time, the NBA suspended play, the President gave a primetime address suspending Europe travel and one of the most beloved actors in the world, Tom Hanks, announced he had tested positive for COVID-19. This all came after earlier in the day the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic. It was a day that documentaries and films will be made of for decades to come, and it really outlined the scope of how disruptive coronavirus would be in the ensuing year.

After being as stubborn as it could possibly be in the day in between that hour and haulers rolling in for that weekend’s planned events at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR finally postponed the weekend. It eventually postponed seven race weekends. With an Easter off-weekend already in the schedule, NASCAR had only held 10 national touring series races by the middle of May. Compare that to the 29 it had originally scheduled to have held up to that point.

After a weekend off, NASCAR and FOX Sports decided to put something on TV. And the iRacing Pro Invitational Series was definitely… something.

The series premise was fairly simple. A number of real-life NASCAR pros were invited to participate in seven exhibition iRacing events. There were neither points on the line nor prize money; only pride and publicity were winnable for drivers.

Looking back on the series now, the takeaway that can be made from it is still what I wrote at the end of it. It was a huge missed opportunity because FOX kept screwing around with all aspects of the series. It also wasn’t great that there was zero creativity to the schedule until the final race, with every race being at the track that was originally scheduled to run that weekend. So instead of the NTT IndyCar Series’ largely superior iRacing series, there really wasn’t many creative track choices.

Of course, the highlight of the season was the one track the series ran at that wasn’t part of the usual NASCAR schedule.

North Wilkesboro Speedway, which hosted its first Cup race in the inaugural 1949 season, had not hosted a NASCAR race of any kind since its final Cup race in 1996. In 2019, Dale Earnhardt Jr. convinced iRacing to scan the track for inclusion on the service in an attempt to preserve the decaying racetrack. After implementation into the simulation, and due to the coronavirus break, NASCAR finally returned to North Wilkesboro (in a way).

The series also had some notable guests. Earnhardt drove in all seven races. NASCAR Peak Mexico Series champion Ruben Garcia Jr. drove at Texas Motor Speedway. Martin Truex Jr. was unable to start all but the final race, so Bobby Labonte filled in, returning to Joe Gibbs Racing virtually. Even Jeff Gordon came back to race at Talladega Superspeedway and at North Wilkesboro, using the same paint scheme he won with at the final Cup race at the track.

Finally, after Denny Hamlin bookended NPIS, winning that North Wilkesboro event after winning the first race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR was back the next weekend. With quite a few things different. NASCAR’s biggest goal in its return was to limit track time in general. No more practice, only one qualifying session the rest of the season, and extremely limited personnel.

One huge negative for NASCAR’s return was the lack of actual COVID-19 testing. The reality of the situation is that questionnaires and temperature checks can only do but so much for such an inconsistent disease. Some people show no symptoms and become infectious carriers; some never even run a fever.

Still, despite these drawbacks, the warm weather outdoors and the social distancing/mask guidelines also implemented by the sanctioning body worked. While we don’t know if there wasn’t at least some degree of spread at the racetrack, it’s fair to say there really were no outbreaks until the final couple of weeks of the season among a few sets of pit crews.

The NASCAR garage was never designated by a local government as a super spreader event weeks after the fact. If there was a large scale outbreak at any point, it would have at least leaked out at some point. And it just didn’t. While NASCAR deserves some level of scrutiny for perhaps coming back too soon — it dodges the “is it safe?” question in its own FAQ on the subject — and for never administering a COVID-19 test to its competitors, it deserves credit for making all of this work.

For the most part, at least. There were still people in the industry who caught COVID and missed time — pit crews, shop staff, drivers. Probably the most notable was when Jimmie Johnson tested positive and missed the final race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his NASCAR career. Austin Dillon also missed a race late in the regular season, meaning that the legendary Richard Childress No. 3 Chevrolet started a race with Kaz Grala at the wheel. Despite the suddenness of the situation, Grala was at least able to wheel the car to a solid top-10 finish in the only Cup start of his career so far.

No playoff drivers in any of the national series tested positive once the playoffs began, thankfully. There was a serious chance that a lot of things could have really screwed up the season, but the playoffs went off without a hitch.

As far as the schedule of events, Lord have mercy on those first two months back — especially the first 11 days of the comeback, during which seven national touring series races were held. Doubleheaders in the Cup Series were held at Pocono Raceway (as was originally scheduled), Michigan International Speedway and Dover International Speedway. The Xfinity Series held doubleheaders at Kentucky Speedway and Richmond Raceway.

Mid-week races were held at a number of different racetracks, with the two most memorable coming in the second race back at Darlington Raceway (Kyle Busch accidentally wrecked Chase Elliott) and a race in early June at Martinsville Speedway (Bubba Wallace drove a Black Lives Matter car in the first-ever Cup night race at the track).

Where NASCAR actually went to also had to be modified. Due to local travel restrictions, a number of racetracks did not host NASCAR events this season. NASCAR did not hold a Cup event on a California road course for the first time since 1957, with Sonoma Raceway’s event canceled for the year. Chicagoland Speedway and Iowa Speedway canceled all NASCAR events for the year, and both tracks will also not hold NASCAR races in 2021, with the last races at the track possibly being the Cup race in 2019 for Chicagoland and a IndyCar doubleheader this year at Iowa.

Watkins Glen International’s race was moved to the Daytona International Speedway road course. While NASCAR always planned on running the road course for the 2021 Clash exhibition race, it never prepared for all three national touring series (and the ARCA Menards Series) running points events there in 2020. While the races were actually pretty boring from a TV perspective, they were not total disasters.

Outside of Cup, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course did not host an NXS race this season, in addition to the two Iowa dates and the series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway being canceled. On the Truck side of things, Iowa, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Eldora Speedway’s events were not held this year.

The first couple of months of the return were exhausting, even just as somebody sitting on their butt at home watching it. But NASCAR still enjoyed pretty good ratings outside of mid-week races, at least until about late July, when baseball, hockey, basketball and eventually football began play again. Ratings fell in a big way from the extra competition in a normally quiet period for sports but not enough to where it was a really huge problem among NASCAR’s media partners.

Sponsors left or fell through. The reality is that a lot of companies saw a lot of revenue disappear, and the first place to cut costs is advertising. Combine that with not being able to hold hospitality events at the track after the first month of the season, and there were a fair amount of companies vanishing overnight, especially outside of the Cup Series.

While COVID-19 was and continues to be an absolutely horrible thing that has happened to humanity at large, there were some lessons learned that will prove valuable to NASCAR in the future schedule-wise after it was forced to adapt on the fly to the problems presented by this virus.

Mid-week races did not draw ratings and are probably not going to be coming back. Turns out there are no disasters without practice or qualifying, and so both will continue to be greatly reduced in 2021. It saves teams money and gives the at-track personnel less headaches, no longer being on the road three out of seven days of the week.

COVID-19 has made 2020 into a pretty horrible year; NASCAR was far from alone in the effects the pandemic has had on industries and on human life. People will have to go through this holiday season either without family members or with them stuck in ICU units.

But the end of the year has brought promise. The world now has multiple vaccines in production, which will begin to be administered out over the coming months. That doesn’t mean it has disappeared — far from it, actually judging by the spikes in daily infections and hospitalizations America is currently facing. But there is a light at the end of this tunnel; I actually would not be shocked if the majority of the Daytona 500 field in February are in the vaccination process by race day.

But we’re still a long way from that vaccine coming in big numbers to the general public, and until it does, NASCAR and other major sport organizations will continue to be affected by the virus. They will continue to have the responsibility on their shoulders to adapt to circumstances in the year to come.

And for the people from the garage to the media to the track workers to the fans, I hope NASCAR continues to responsibly avoid major outbreaks and shutdowns.

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