Race Weekend Central

Preparing for the Truck Series’ Return at Charlotte Motor Speedway

92 days. That’s how long it’s been since the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series has raced, and by the time the series in back on track at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday, May 26, it will be 95 days, officially longer than the 2019/2020 offseason.

Following a rather ho-hum visit to Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Feb. 21, the Truck Series went into its own hibernation for a couple of weeks ahead of its next scheduled race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 14. No one knew at the time that that race wouldn’t happen as it was planned.

After a couple weeks off, teams prepared to make their way to Georgia for what was supposed to be the third race of the 2020 campaign. But just days before the doubleheader with the NASCAR Xfinity Series, sports as a whole came to a screeching halt. On Wednesday, March 11, the NBA season stopped dead in its tracks after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the same day the World Health Organization characterized it as a pandemic.

The following day, the National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and Major League Soccer (MLS) each put its seasons on hold. But NASCAR held out, hoping to race that weekend, even though the decision was made not to allow fans in the stands for the safety of everyone involved.

The next morning (Friday, March 13), teams and drivers had already arrived at the track when the call was made to postpone Atlanta’s events, along with those at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which were scheduled for the following weekend.

It was just three days later when the decision was made to postpone all events through the remainder of March and all of April with a hopeful return to racing at Martinsville Speedway March 8-9. When the Commonwealth of Virginia expanded its stay-at-home orders into June, it quickly became clear that NASCAR likely would not be returning to the track at Martinsville, and sure enough, in mid-April the call was made to postpone.

Compounded by a stay-at-home order issued in North Carolina that prohibited teams from working at the shop, the uncertainty surrounding what would become of the 2020 season increased. Prior to the stay-at-home order, many teams kept working on their equipment in preparation for the season, and it became a time that was a huge benefit for smaller organizations in terms of extra days to work on their setups.

The financial hit taken by some of the smaller teams may not fully be realized until later in the year, though some were forced to lay off portions of their workforce, especially since no one knew exactly when or if the sport would return to the track.

At the end of April, NASCAR made the announcement everyone had been hoping for after nearly two months of the sport sitting silent. Working with local authorities, the sanctioning body put together a stretch of seven races in 11 days to re-open the sport, though the new regulations were sure to give NASCAR a drastically different look.

From single-day events without practice or qualifying to empty grandstands to mandated face masks, along with temperature checks for everyone entering the track, the return to racing has been incredibly different. Remote broadcast announcers were accompanied by remote National Anthem singers when the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series returned to the track a total of three times in five days at Darlington Raceway.

But for a short time, all of the world’s stressors and uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 were all but forgotten as drivers raced door-to-door, shaking off the rust of an unusual break in the year. Come Tuesday, Truck Series drivers get their turn at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the North Carolina Education Lottery 200. Like the races at Darlington, there will be no fans and required masks, along with as much social distancing as possible sans the close nature of things like pit stops. But the series will finally be back on track.

It’s a welcome sight for fans and teams alike. For many, no sports throughout most of the month of March and all of April made those six weeks or so drag on for what felt like an eternity. And while plenty of uncertainty still surrounds the remainder of the season, we can be sure that, at the very least, the plan is for at least three Truck Series races in the coming weeks.

It’s clear that the remainder of the year is up in the air, and NASCAR will likely have to make some unconventional decisions in order to race as much as possible, especially since the sanctioning body has made it clear all along that it plans to run a full schedule.

As of press time, just three races have been rescheduled, all of which will be run without fans in the stands. Following Tuesday’s race at Charlotte, the series will visit Atlanta Motor Speedway on Saturday, June 6 and Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday, June 13. And regardless of what happens with the rest of the season, we do know that Chicagoland Speedway and Iowa Speedway are off the table completely, as both tracks’ dates have been canceled for the 2020 season.

I’d be a liar if I said I was 100% behind NASCAR’s return when it was announced. I took the news with a fair amount of skepticism given the risks of a highly contagious virus that appears to be able to be spread by asymptomatic carriers. After all, it would take just one crew member being a carrier to spread COVID-19 throughout the entire garage. And perhaps part of that skepticism and concern comes from having family members who are in the high-risk category.

Despite the risks, though, NASCAR really needed to get back on track. We’re talking about the livelihoods of so many people throughout the sport, from drivers to crew members to even those that clean up around the team shops at home. Though it’s unclear just how every single person involved in the sport was affected, you can rightfully assume that their lives were all changed in some way throughout the downtime.

It remains to be seen if NASCAR made the right decision, and whether the precautions the sanctioning body and teams are taking will be enough. For right now, I’ll welcome racing back with open arms.

Just in case the sport is forced to shut down once again before the season ends.

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