WELCOME RACE FANS, a phrase that is said and printed on signs every weekend from February to November and is long overdue for some recent use finally can be said again. As every sports fan knows the sports world has been put on hold since early March due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Luckily, NASCAR with its unique format will allow the phrase “DRIVERS START YOUR ENGINES” to be said a month before any other major sport. This means the entire sports world will be waiting and watching with bated breath to see if NASCAR can pull off a return without a COVID-19 incident or flare up.
Where better to return than to the first and oldest Superspeedway, Darlington Raceway, to be followed closely by the track at the center of the NASCAR world Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Darlington will kick off the first of seven races in 11 days between the top three NASCAR racing series starting this weekend May 17. Darlington’s two extra race dates combined with Charlotte’s one extra date will replace a total of three weekends on the schedule so far. NASCAR announced over the weekend that Chicagoland, Richmond and Sonoma are the race weekends to be replaced. NASCAR also said more could possibly be replaced in the future depending on state’s restrictions.
On April 30, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer, Steve O'Donnell; and NASCAR Vice President of Racing Operations John Bobo outlined an extensive plan for teams to return to the track safely in a press conference. There will be extensive safety precautions and proper social distancing in place when NASCAR returns.
Unfortunately, to be able to return to the track so soon also means at least for these first seven races no fans will be allowed in the events. Fans can still watch and listen to the races via TV and Radio. Fox Sports and FS1 will be handling the TV coverage for the next 12 races, with NBC and NBCSN coming onboard for the remainder of the season following that. Along with TV coverage NASCAR staples MRN and PRN will handle the radio side of the race call as they have done for decades.
Teams will enter and exit the track in staggered groups, instead of all at the same time in order to be screened for the virus before entering or exiting the racetrack. With the lack of fans in the stands and campers in the infield the team haulers will be spread-out across the infield.
Also, teams are limited to a 16-team member roster for their traveling road crews, which will have the teams working in creative ways to still use everyone but not have them all at the racetrack. For example, Todd Gordon (Ryan Blaney’s Crew Chief) has said he will be leaving his engineers at home as to not waste mechanic positions while having engineers still do their jobs on Zoom Calls. Plus, teams will be required to have their own port-a-johns to help continue to facilitate social distancing.
Along with that, team spotters will be spread out across the top of the front stretch grandstands during the races. Masks and proper face coverings will be required for all personnel entering and working at the track, along with random temperature checks throughout the events. Failure to follow set guidelines will result in $10,000+ fines and potential ejection from the facility depending on the severity.
In other NASCAR news while the cars may have been silent on the racetrack, the Gaming world and FoxSports1 have been roaring with the sights and sounds of Iracing, a form of computer simulated racing. The NASCAR Pro-Invitational Iracing series was created a week following the shutdown.
Iracing has stepped up in a big way to fill the racing and sports void in general for that matter, with a few other sports trying unsuccessfully to replicate what Iracing could do. In the seven races run there were highs, lows, triumphant returns and even some controversy. The Iracing series would see the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon and a digital North Wilkesboro Speedway. The Pro-Invitational races would also see upset sponsors, drivers with hurt feelings and the fall from grace of Kyle Larson. As the Pro-Invitational series followed the missed Cup series race weekends starting with Homestead-Miami Speedway. Fans got to see not in order three William Byron dominating wins, two Denny Hamlin bookend series wins, an Alex Bowman win and one underdog Timmy Hill victory.
Fans also got to witness some controversy arise during the 8-week series run, starting with some drivers being better at real racing than simulated racing. To many fans’ surprise some long-time veterans of the NASCAR Cup series struggled with the simulated races like Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano. Others thrived and names we don’t normally hear rose to the top like Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithly.
One notable struggle was Bubba Wallace rage quitting in the middle of the Bristol Iracing event following some on track bad luck, resulting in Wallace’s Iracing sponsor Blue Emu to drop their sponsorship of Bubba in a Tweet, with no real-world sponsors affected.
Then another online incident also ended with some real-life consequences which happened over the Easter off-weekend. While racing with friends in another series, thinking he was on a private chat channel Kyle Larson called his friend a racial slur, when in fact he was on the public chat channel for everyone in that online race to hear.
Larson’s use of the word brought a swift and stern reaction from sponsors and sanctioning bodies alike. Within minutes this word garnered Larson indefinite suspensions from NASCAR and IRACING, along with termination of his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing and several of Kyle’s personal sponsors.
However, after Larson completed sensitivity training he will be racing at the World of Outlaws Knoxville Nationals in Iowa along with former NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne. This situation with Larson created another situation that very, very few people saw coming. The swift and unceremonious exit from the 42 car left a vacant seat in the Cup series up on its return. This left Chip Ganassi Racing scrambling to find a replacement driver.
While rumor spread that it might be this driver or that driver wheels were in motion behind the scenes that few knew about, and when the announcement of who would pilot the 42 machine came down most never saw it coming. Matt Kenseth will return to the racetrack after being let go from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017 and with a short “team evaluation” stint at his old home of Roush-Fenway Racing in 2018, Kenseth had faded in to the memory of the NASCAR community. However, now starting in Darlington Kenseth will race for CGR the rest of this racing season, at least.