Race Weekend Central

Reflecting on a Playoff Pursuit

As I made the decision that hot June day, it all seemed so simple. 

Three months of races, 13 straight weeks. 

How bad could it be? 

Little did I know how relentless the stretch would be, or just how much I would learn about myself and motorsports along the way. 

It was after a sweaty summer run that idea came to me. In the midst of a challenging year, filled with more setbacks than I could ever have foreseen, the launch of my Motorsports Beat outlet had been a bit of a struggle. 

I’d written unique stories when time allowed. My newsletter was going well, and fans were supporting the efforts financially. But I was struggling so much more than I ever could have imagined before the season. From February through June I’d covered just three race weekends, struggling to find opportunity amid an oppressive life financially and emotionally at home. 

Throughout my life, many of my best ideas have come during runs. Joining Frontstretch in 2015 was a decision made amid a run in the crisp Midwest air one winter’s day, as was the decision to come back on this small basis last year. My own outlet came amid a race day jog near Michigan International Speedway in 2018, and this very column came to fruition as I was marching through a 5-mile slog on Tuesday, June 16. 

I’ve always trusted my thoughts when running. In the midst of that painful struggle, I often find clarity and purpose. So when my mind flickered with the idea of playoff push when jogging a mile from home last summer, the thought gripped me immediately. 

And so it slowly came to fruition – a bold challenge unlike any I’d done before. I would cover 13 straight race weekends to close out the 2020 racing season, making up for the missed events early in the year. 

Here’s the kicker, though – I’d do it all while stretching just five vacation days at a day job that started each week day at 7 a.m. ET. 

The idea was bold. Risky. Stupid, even. All but the first three races were either a six-plus-hour drive or expensive flight away, and my day job responsibilities were picking up at the worst possible time due to a pair of unexpected summer promotions. 

But I believed in it, and knew it’d be a memory I’d cherish for the rest of my life. I’d long wanted to make a true playoff push with NASCAR, having only covered a pair of playoff openers at Chicagoland Speedway and a lone elimination event at Kansas Speedway in my first five years on the beat. 

I also wanted to experience the playoffs as I knew it, rolling through the traditional fall schedule and concluding at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With the changes made for 2020 – Homestead weekend is already over as I type this – that meant I only have one chance to do things right. 

So I did. I plugged each stop along the way into the calendar app of my phone, saved up a little money and put in credential requests while quietly waiting for the opportunity of a lifetime. 

The two-month wait seemed like an eternity, but the ensuing three months would be gone in the blink of an eye. 

It all began with a quiet Friday cruise up through Chicago to Milwaukee, where I crashed for the night in a bougie Hilton hotel – the one allowance I gave myself heading into the stretch. I ventured to Road America for the Xfinity Series standalone, enjoying a bratwurst and the casual feeling that comes at NASCAR events without the Cup Series in town. 

The following week was the lone deviation from the NASCAR beat, with a trip to Lucas Oil Raceway for the NHRA’s US Nationals. In a unique twist, I covered much of the festivities from a nearby Starbucks due to internet issues, throwing down iced teas with reckless abandon and establishing a four-day kinship with a barista I’ll likely never see again. 

Those first two weeks were unique, far removed from the hustle and bustle I’d experience for the remainder of the tour. Everything felt more laid back, even as John Force ripped down the drag strip to secure yet another win in the Big Go in what proved to be an emotional moment for himself and his family. It allowed me to ease into what would soon prove to be a near-insurmountable challenge. 

Next up came the race I’d attended since I was 6 years old – the Brickyard 400. It was the race I was most excited for, and one I assumed would be easy to cover even with it serving as the regular season finale. 

I’d love to tell you of the fun it provided, but in truth I don’t remember most of it. I proved deathly ill that weekend, with a high fever (101 degrees) that didn’t mix well with the brutal summer heat. In truth I was only at the track for the races themselves, showing up just prior to each green flag and hiding away from everyone else – a feat that’s thankfully easy inside of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s cavernous media center. 

The sickness ultimately proved to be a distraction for the ensuing three days, keeping me distant and struggling even as I showed up and limped through my day job. The first time I felt some sense of normalcy again was Thursday, and by then I was less than 24 hours from my first flight to a West Coast race. 

Flying is one of the things I grew to love during this stretch. I’d flown just twice in my life prior to my playoff pursuit: both to and from the 2018 Daytona 500. It was convenient, but I loved driving and controlling my own destiny too much to choose flights often. The fear of delays and cancellations racked my brain whenever I thought of airplanes, fueled by the horror stories I’d seen contemporaries share on social media. 

I only flew to four of the 10 playoff races, but I quickly grew to appreciate how convenient the process is.

That appreciation began on Friday night, as I took off for a trip to Las Vegas and a culture shock unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. 

It took about four hours and a brief layover in Minnesota, but I arrived in Sin City just as the sun was beginning to set. I’d had no hotel confirmed going into the trip, but a wonderful colleague in the media center not only offered me a place to stay, but also a ride and a night on the town. 

I arrived too late to see the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race that evening, one of three events I would miss along the stretch. Instead I was treated to my first In-N-Out experience and a tour of the Strip. We walked nearly the entire stretch, and though I’m not a gambler I couldn’t help but appreciate the overwhelming diversity and opportunity that comes with the area. 

Las Vegas is a rare market for NASCAR, one of the few glamorous areas with a track in a schedule composed largely of rural areas that have the kind of land needed for national stock car fans and infrastructure. The track itself is just a 1.5-mile oval, the sort of place many fans clamor for the sport to leave behind. But the market makes it valuable for the series and its participants. 

It’s difficult to explain the experience covering that race was, but I could best describe it as a party. The races were fast and interesting on the hot Nevada track, and the town proved entertaining at all hours. I had more devilish treats than hours of sleep, sneaking my daily newsletter out just as it was due each day at 3 a.m. local time. I assume many of my colleagues might have done the same, making the most of a rare opportunity for that level of entertainment on the NASCAR tour. 

I realized quickly just how few people I knew in the area and how few knew me in return. But as I met and interacted with the western fanbase I came to know them as the same kindhearted, fun-loving race fans I’ve met all over the Midwest and East Coast. 

That’s the only race I can truly tell you every memory of in full, because it stood out at the time. It was a slow start to the postseason, and I was still well-rested and full of motivation. 

The rest of the playoffs seemingly blipped past like a sudden blur, vanishing as quick as a car screaming in anger down the frontstretch at Michigan International Speedway. 

Each race of the playoffs carried its own memories. I’ll always remember moments like Chase Elliott’s magician-like stand atop his No. 9 Chevrolet after emerging from a Heartburn Turn mistake unscathed and recovering for a Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL victory. I’ll recall Katelyn Larson’s celebratory beer chug after her husband, Kyle, earned what might be the last win of his now-stalled NASCAR career at Dover International Speedway. 

There were weeks when Martin Truex Jr. looked damn-near unstoppable, a Texas Motor Speedway Xfinity race that seemed more like an IMSA endurance event than a two-hour show, engine issues for ThorSport Racing and an oval win for Stewart Friesen. 

Rain shifted the Talladega Superspeedway Cup race to a Monday, running in front of a crowd I thought of as tiny in the era before COVID-19. Ryan Blaney won that one, besting Ryan Newman in a battle that also included Denny Hamlin. Little did I know those three would participate in a similar, and much darker, battle just four months later in the Daytona 500. 

Hamlin looked like a world-beater until he didn’t, winning in both the Round of 12 and Round of 8 before succumbing to overzealous tape application at Homestead. Kevin Harvick put together another strong playoff drive, but it was Kyle Busch that prevailed in the season finale to secure his second Cup championship. 

The races were each memorable in their own way. But in truth those memories pale in comparison to the travel, challenges and people I engaged with along the way. 

Seven months after the playoff push, those are the things that resonate with me most. Those sleepless nights, driving to the sound of a podcast or a variety of Spotify playlists that echoed out into cool fall air. Pointing out the same construction on the capital building in Charleston, W. Va., on three separate weeks and seeing how much progress they’d made. 

Each week brought potential for a new car, as my 2013 Buick Verano effectively bit the dust just as the postseason was beginning. My local town had an Enterprise branch, and I quickly came to be on a first-name basis with the staff. They let me keep my clunker at the back of their parking lot, and in return I took whatever vehicle was available each week to drive anywhere from the Indianapolis Airport to Alabama. 

All told I drove eight different vehicles, ranging from a compact car with no cruise control to a fancy four-wheel truck with more bells and whistles than I ever hoped to utilize. I continued utilizing rental cars until I was able to buy a new car and sell the old one in December, well after the conclusion of the season. 

My day job also saw challenges, unexpectedly cutting one person in the midst of the stretch and starting a chain reaction that forced me to cover for a coworker on the Monday morning leaving Texas, which I’d planned to drive back from on Monday afternoon. 

This occurred less than two weeks before the trip, and forced me to completely rearrange the trip, dropping more than $1,200 on last-second flights to get back on Sunday night. That threatened me heading into the final two weeks, with Phoenix Raceway pushing me to the very brink of my comfort. But a kindhearted supporter donated enough money to get me through the trip. 

Half a year later I can still remember the travel stories with vivid detail. 

I slept at a truck stop on the way to Charlotte. Drove all the way from Indiana to Virginia and back in the same 36-hour day to cover Cup at Richmond Raceway. Sprinted through the Minneapolis airport to reach a flight to Phoenix, then took a deviated flight pattern through Salt Lake City and drove 30 mph on icy roads to get back home from the same race, laying down under a cubicle at my day job with my backpack as a pillow in my sole opportunity to sneak in an hour of sleep. 

I wrote newsletters in the South Point Casino, on the side of the highway in Ohio and 5 ft. from a sleeping journalist in a cheap hotel about an hour out from Dover, Del. I shared dinners with photographers, journalists, drivers and, often, no one at all. More coffee was consumed than should ever be allowed for one person, and 200 days later I still feel like I’m catching up on sleep. 

Through it all I showed up at my day job on time each Monday, using just 40 hours of vacation along the entire stretch. Many times I slept in the parking lot before heading in, and again for an hour at lunch in an effort to salvage the day. 

Along the way I interacted with more wonderful people than I ever could have dreamed of as an Indiana high schooler desperate to meet racing fans a decade ago. I was blessed to chat with Joseph in Las Vegas, both a Kim and Kym in Kansas, Sarah at Martinsville and so many more than I could ever hope to remember. 

I talked with drivers as they saw their playoff dreams crushed every few weeks and saw jubilant celebration from others after they kept their postseason hopes alive. Crew members shared their thoughts and hopes around each race. Journalists offered help, guidance and friendship as I crossed paths with them in the media center each week. 

The personalities, accents and lifestyles varied within the groups, but the same passion for racing resonated throughout each person.

That same passion filled me along the way, and each time I engaged with people at the track it was rekindled. They kept me going even as my vehicle and day job threatened to derail my effort, pushing me through the many sleepless nights and a brutal work-life balance. 

In the midst of it all I finally understood what pushes everyone in the industry to work tirelessly year-round, sacrificing relationships and other opportunities in pursuit of speed and success. 

The racing life is a busy one, going as fast off track as competitors do on it. But it’s filled with more memories and opportunity than most professions could ever dream of. 

In 13 weeks I traveled out of Indiana more than the rest of my department did combined during the full 2019 year. I met more people and made more memories than I could ever hope to do living a normal life in these parts. Races came and went in a blur, but the journey along the way was something that I’ll always cherish. 

Was it challenging? Brutal? Hellish? Absolutely. 

But it was all worth it. 

As the final checkered flag flew, I sprinted to the inside wall along the frontstretch at Homestead, taking a moment of race fandom to experience a championship burnout as Kyle Busch shredded his tires just a football throw away. Hours later I walked down the front stretch in a moment of quiet reflection, fighting off tears as I reflected on just how I’d managed to pull this feat off. 

The next day brought a flight back home, making a fitting stop in Charlotte along the way, where I briefly crossed paths with soon-to-be Cup rookie Christopher Bell. 

That was the last NASCAR-centric moment of the trip. I arrived in the small Fort Wayne airport around 8:30 p.m. ET, grabbed a bottle of Cherry Coke and set out for the 40-minute drive home. 

Along the way I made the quiet decision that I’d likely never make that sort of chaotic playoff push again. 

But in the midst of another run on Tuesday, that mindset changed. 

Four months into a season where COVID-19 has effectively canceled all non-essential plans for the racing industry, I’d give anything to have a chance to do it all over again.

About the author

A graduate of Ball State, Aaron rejoins Frontstretch for his second season in 2016 following a successful year that included covering seven races and starting the popular "Two-Headed Monster" column in 2015. Now in his third year of covering motorsports, Aaron serves as an Assistant Editor for Frontstretch while also contributing to other popular sites including Speed51 and The Apex. He encourages you to come say hi when you see him at the track.

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Thank you Aaron for a truly enjoyable article. I hope that one day I might find a way to participate in just one Cup event.

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