Did You Notice?… Jimmie Johnson became the first NASCAR Cup Series driver to test positive for COVID-19? Johnson self-reported the news after getting a test shortly after his wife, Chandra, was suffering from allergy-like symptoms (she’s also tested positive). It’s still unclear how Johnson got the virus even though he’s been taking precautions.
“My first priority is the health and safety of my loved ones and my teammates,” Johnson said before a series of follow-up videos released Friday night (July 3) and Saturday morning. “I’ve never missed a race in my Cup career, but I know it’s going to be very hard to watch from the sidelines when I’m supposed to be out there competing. Although this situation is extremely disappointing, I’m going to come back ready to win races and put ourselves in playoff contention.”
Jimmie Johnson says he felt his family took all the necessary precautions to keep from getting COVID-19 and urges people not to let their guard down: pic.twitter.com/JFRkmz14m4
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) July 4, 2020
Thus far, only one person on Johnson’s No. 48 team, an interior mechanic, has been asked to self-isolate based on close contact. The test also ends a streak of 663 straight Cup starts dating back to the 2002 Daytona 500.
Best wishes to the seven-time Cup champion as the recovery process, even if he remains asymptomatic, is likely to take another two weeks. It’ll almost certainly knock him out of playoff position after missing at least three Cup points-paying events: Indianapolis Motor Speedway July 5, Kentucky Speedway July 11 and Texas Motor Speedway July 19. (The All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, too, July 15).
But the bigger question is whether Johnson is simply the first domino to fall. Keep in mind NASCAR didn’t force Johnson to take a COVID-19 test; he only chose to due to the situation with his wife. Unlike other sports leagues, such as stick-and-ball rivals (MLB, NBA), NASCAR racing series refuse to test everyone in the garage area before any given race weekend.
At this point, are they afraid to? Other sports have produced a level of positive tests that have caused players concern about restarting their seasons.
Now, the level of positive tests vary depending on what sport you’re talking about. MLB, upon testing 3,185 people, came back with a positivity rate of 1.2% (38 people). A similar rate within NASCAR drivers in the sport’s top three series would produce 1-2 positive tests out of 118-120. Johnson could easily be labeled the only one.
But what if their results mirrored the NBA? The total there is 25 out of 344 players, a positivity rate of slightly over 7%. Apply that rate to 118-120 drivers in the sport’s top three series and you’ll about 7-9 positives.
There’s also one important difference. These tests in other sports have been done before the players returned to competition. Before there’s an asymptomatic case, like Johnson’s, in which an athlete has been mixing in the stadium (errr, racetrack) and coming reasonably close to other athletes and staff.
“I feel like we’ve been very diligent to do the best that we can. We’ve been wearing masks for a long time, of course following the protocols and washing our hands… clearly, we weren’t,” Johnson said. “With our best attempts, we still ended up positive somehow.”
With our best attempts. Have all 120 drivers in the garage been as diligent as Johnson? Chances are, not everyone has been wearing a mask 24/7. And all it takes is one case to muddy the waters, potentially spreading the disease in more places. Other team members at race shops have already tested positive, from Stewart-Haas Racing to Team Penske. And those are the ones that have been publicly reported.
We don’t know how many people Johnson has been in close contact with the last few days. Did he already have the virus last weekend at Pocono? And, if so, was he capable of spreading it?
“In talking to healthcare professionals,” Johnson said. “There are so many unknowns right now… there’s just not a lot of answers. And I just can’t even get answers having the virus.”
It all puts NASCAR in a bit of a bind. Where is the line in terms of suspending the season? Would a driver like Johnson, God forbid, getting hospitalized or worse force a change in direction? What if we see 4-5 more positives on the Cup grid in the next few weeks? There’s a lot more questions than answers right now other than an ugly truth… failing to finish the season, in any capacity, will cost NASCAR, its sponsors, its TV partners, its tracks, virtually anyone tangentially involved a whole boatload of money.
There’s millions of dollars in reasoning not to go ahead and change course on their testing process. So I wouldn’t expect NASCAR to do it.
On the flip side… let’s talk for a minute about Justin Allgaier. The longtime JR Motorsports driver in the NASCAR Xfinity Series will sub for Johnson in the best opportunity of his career. Johnson, retiring at the end of 2020, reiterated he has no plans to change that this weekend despite the COVID-19 diagnosis. That keeps the No. 48 ride open for 2021 and no obvious candidate to fill it.
Allgaier, at age 34, has always been considered a longshot candidate. Despite eight wins in the last three-plus NXS seasons, he’s failed to win a championship at JRM and had only limited success in Cup with a mid-pack organization. 76 career Cup starts produced just one top-10 finish, an eighth at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2015.
But making the most of a surprise opportunity has a way of turning heads… especially at Hendrick Motorsports. Just look at Alex Bowman. Would anyone have ever thought, back in early 2016, Bowman would have a chance at replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 full-time upon his retirement? People were shocked when Bowman got the opportunity to split the ride in a sub role, along with Jeff Gordon, once Earnhardt took some time away due to post-concussion syndrome.
It was Bowman himself who took the bull by the horns, earning the ride in the No. 88 full-time. Winning the pole, then nearly the race at Phoenix Raceway in November 2016 was the cherry on top of a successful audition for the job. It shows owner Rick Hendrick is open to looking outside the box. Ally Financial is a sponsor that could handle an older, experienced driver and HMS could use a 30-something to balance out the youth movement within their ranks.
So can Allgaier pull a Bowman? He has a chance to turn heads with a top-five finish or (gasp!) a shocking Indy upset. It likely won’t be his last chance, either as long as he keeps the No. 48 out of trouble Sunday. The future of his NASCAR career will likely be determined in the next 2-3 weeks. But hey, no pressure or anything….
Did You Notice?… NASCAR can’t run away from politics? Last month was an EF5 tornado of off-track issues; the controversy over the Confederate flag ban plus the Bubba Wallace alleged hate crime that wasn’t. Pocono Raceway offered a chance to get back to normal while a favorable poll released this week indicates NASCAR may make a net gain to their fanbase over the long run.
Time to take a breather and focus on the racing, right? Umm… try saying that to Go FAS Racing and Corey Lajoie. Their nine-race primary sponsorship from Patriots of America PAC thrust the 2020 election straight into the NASCAR spotlight.
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) July 1, 2020
Certainly, political campaigns have sponsored NASCAR rides before. But the Trump/Go FAS partnership is the highest profile yet, placed with a Cup organization that’s a top-15, perhaps even a top-10 contender on a good day. Lajoie sits 27th in the standings, 15 races in with an eighth-place run in the season-opening Daytona 500.
That means the Trump car is going to make it on TV. It’s going to be discussed and politics will once again enter the sacred space where sports, entertainment, relaxation is supposed to be. (Note: The fact it’s Trump is irrelevant. I would be saying the same thing if it was Joe Biden, the Libertarian candidate, the Green Party, whomever). Lajoie, one of the sport’s more outspoken, popular voices, has been dead quiet on social media while taking his Twitter feed private. You think he doesn’t know the drama this sponsorship is going to cause?
In the meantime, Barstool Sports spent the week in the news for a podcast that literally spelled out the N-word. Besides the obvious problem it caused their company, NASCAR finds itself now placed in a political box. Here they are, trumpeting diversity on a national scale in the wake of their public support of social justice. But their paid partnership with Barstool remains despite the company’s founder admitting to open use of the N-word in public.
Wait a second… isn’t that the same type of behavior that got Kyle Larson fired, then blacklisted from the sport? It’s certainly not stopping NASCAR from cutting a check from Barstool as part of this paid partnership. It’s the type of hot water, all-about-the-money criticism that got CEO Brian France in trouble and this new breed of leadership must be held to the same standard. I’d say more but Frontstretch’s Mike Finley has a fantastic article on whether this partnership is going to be worth it for NASCAR over the long run. He said it better than I ever could.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before taking off….
- I was out of town last weekend, a (hopefully) safe little escape during the summer of COVID-19 so I watched the Pocono Raceway races from afar. Nothing in them changed the narrative on who the best drivers have been this season (winners Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick) or whether this track deserves two dates in 2021. With the passing of Dr. Rose Mattioli this week at 92, the matriarch of this track’s family, our condolences go out to the speedway. But condolences may also be in order in grieving the loss of the track’s relevance going forward. No IndyCar and potentially a slash to one NASCAR date? While remaining an independent facility? You wonder if this triangular-shaped track can remain viable in the next decade without a redesign.
- For Hamlin, the Brickyard 400 remains one of the few events left on the bucket list he hasn’t won. 2020 would feel like the time to strike when the iron is hot. But I also expect Kyle Busch to be strong in what’s been a rollercoaster season. He reminds me a bit of how Johnson used to be at the beginning of the Chase format in the late 2000s. How much does it really matter if Busch has won yet if he’s going to make the playoffs anyway? It’s all about peaking at the right time… and this driver, as we know, is capable of 3-4 wins in a row once he gets the monkey off his back.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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