Ty Dillon’s recent podcast is another example of the mental toll racing can take. Is there anything NASCAR or teams can do to alleviate it, or is the intense stress an inevitability?
Mark Kristl: Professional athletes always face pressure. If they do not perform well enough, they become unemployed. It is partly why athletes retire earlier than working professionals – their physical skills decline, so they retire rather than be unceremoniously forced out of the sport. NASCAR is unique because its three series are recognized far more than other minor leagues. Because of that, NASCAR is in a uniquely tough spot. How does it help a young driver who lost their ride? Because everyone is unique, NASCAR ought to offer resources such as recommended counselors, but it is up to the individuals whether to pursue those options.
Luken Glover: It’s not something that NASCAR can just make a decision on and fix. A mental toll in racing can come from a lot of things, and for Ty Dillon it has been a rough start to the 2o21 season. The only thing that can be referred to in this situation is the schedule. As a fan, I love that we get 36 NASCAR Cup Series points races and even a couple of non-points races, However, I can see where a driver is coming from when there is a constant grind year after year. When a string of tough weeks begin to line up, you just never know when it will end, and that affects the mentality of a driver. Instead of, “it’s a new day, let’s go get it,” some think, “Well, I can’t crash today because I crashed last week,” and that just compounds the problem.
With one Cup race after another being won by drivers who had none last year, it’s almost certain that one of last year’s winners won’t return to victory lane in 2021. Who goes trophy-less this year?
Jared Haas: Cole Custer. With Kentucky Speedway off the schedule, Custer will find it difficult to capture a victory at another track. Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled over the past few weeks, especially the No. 41 team.
Glover: Most of the drivers are just too good to bet against. Unfortunately, that leaves Custer out of the picture. While Custer showed speed at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he has struggled otherwise. This is once again going to be a learning year for Custer, and I’m a little concerned about the SHR camp as a whole. With the amount of parity we’ve already seen, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go winless.
Kristl: SHR has struggled thus far this Cup season, so it is unlikely Custer wins this year. He won at Kentucky, which is not on the schedule anymore, after he aced the last restart.
Xfinity Series playoff contenders Justin Allgaier, Riley Herbst and Ryan Sieg have been hindered by poor finishes in 2021. Who gets it turned around first?
Glover: It’s hard to go against Justin Allgaier. Riley Herbst may have the best equipment, but he has not caught up to it. Phoenix Raceway is Allgaier’s best shot to get it turned around with two wins in the desert. JR Motorsports has not a good start to the season, but it isn’t off much at all. Sieg is someone who could be the most consistent of the three, but ultimately Allgaier has the past success, experience and equipment to get the ship righted.
Kristl: Allgaier drives for top team JRM, whose drivers Noah Gragson and Josh Berry have both shined at times this year. Allgaier is a veteran and the only one of those three to win an Xfinity race – he will turn it around.
Haas: Allgaier, as he is only two points behind 12th place in the standings. Herbst is running well but has been running in the eye of the storm. Both Allgaier and Herbst have legitimate shots to make the playoffs by points. All three drivers need to finish races as between the three; they only finished five races. Consistent finishes cure team worries.
Phoenix was the site of the last pre-pandemic NASCAR race in 2020. One year later, how do you grade NASCAR’s pandemic response?
Haas: A. There were a lot of unknowns when the pandemic started last year. Would there be a full schedule? Baseball had to trim its season. NASCAR provided racing virtually while waiting for restrictions to ease that brought in some new fans. NASCAR got back to the track fastest and had no outbreaks reported at the event that had fans. COVID-19 cases were not as rampant as some thought. Drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Spencer Davis, Brendan Gaughan and Austin Dillon tested positive, yet most drivers were out for about a week. There were a lot of unexpected turns that last season had, but it could have been a lot worse.
Kristl: A-. NASCAR last year did not test drivers, crews, etc. for the coronavirus due to the shortage at times of available tests. This year, I have not heard of any shortages, so I am somewhat baffled as to why officials have not tested at least the drivers. Otherwise, the sport had some races with limited attendance last year, it ended all three series seasons on time and there were no major COVID-19 outbreaks.
Glover: A-. When you look at the ratings from the 2020 season across all sports, many had severe drop-offs. NASCAR was in the ballpark of the same ratings it experienced in 2019, which helped it handle the television audience among the best in the sports world. To only have two Cup full-time drivers test positive was a big win, and we saw little outbreak among team employees. That is a testament to the protocols NASCAR set in place. As for fan experience, it was also among the cream of the crop by being one of the first sports to safely bring back fans. Local and state government dictate a lot, but I would have liked to have seen more fans at the track at certain events. Overall, NASCAR can be pretty proud of its response compared to other sports.