With little fanfare, a good deal of resentment and some limited debate on both sides of the issue, an important anniversary passed by this weekend. On March 8, 2020, NASCAR hosted a Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway. You may recall Joey Logano won that event0, his second victory in the first four races of the 2020 Cup season. What few of us had any idea would happen next was that the circus was about to leave town and, with a very displeasing sneezing and wheezing, the calliope was about to burn to the ground.
The plan was to head off to Atlanta Motor Speedway the following weekend for the next Cup race as God, Bill France and Junior Johnson intended things to go annually. But just as the teams were arriving for practice, a shocking announcement was made. That race was canceled.
Too many NASCAR races to count have been postponed by inclement weather, kickstarting the standard operating procedure for those postponed races to be run on the next “raceable day.” (Or. in recent years, the next raceable day that the presenting network found more suitable, curse their pointed little heads.) That didn’t happen. In fact, the next Cup race run wasn’t until May 17 at Darlington. You might recall Kevin Harvick won that one. Maybe you recall as he did so in front of empty grandstands that looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror film.
Like I said, any sport that holds events outdoors is occasionally going to have Mother Nature throw a left-handed monkey wrench in the schedule occasionally. But to the best of my knowledge, the Atlanta race last March was the first to be postponed by a virus. Oh, NASCAR is not immune to various illnesses sweeping through the garage area during the springtime. Those were nasty and unpleasant… just not potentially fatal.
It wasn’t just NASCAR. 2020 was the year that set the world on its ear. Nothing was normal anymore. Even today, pundits are talking about a return to the “New Normal.” Here’s a hint. Nothing new is ever “normal.” Any standard curmudgeon with half a heart can tell you that. “That’s not the way we used to do it.” Here’s a hint. Saint Patrick’s Day is Wednesday. If your plans include strolling into the local Irish tavern sans face mask, greeting your buds with enthusiastic and prolonged handshakes while planting a smooch on the pretty lass wearing the “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” button, don’t forget to bring bail money. (Unless you’re in Texas. To any Texans reading this, those of us in the other 49 states have known y’all are insane for decades. Throwing in the towel and leaving it in fate’s hands this close to the finish line? Well, I don’t suppose they’ve ever come up with a vaccine that will fix stupid.)
Life went into the spin cycle up here in Pennsylvania, too, last year. During the 6 o’clock news on a Friday evening, WPVI-TV’s Jim Gardner announced that starting Monday morning, we would all be required to wear a surgical mask in public, especially to enter retail establishments. Including, one would presume, retail establishments that sold surgical masks. I couldn’t recall ever seeing them for sale anywhere. I’m blessed in that I only had to put in a call to my next door neighbor and longtime friend Andrew. Andrew has done enough paint work on classic cars and Corvettes that he had a box with nearly 100 masks inside. But walking into the grocery store I visit a couple times a week, I felt like I had landed on another planet. The aisles had become one way in whichever direction was opposite the way you needed to go to get what you wanted. (Which some other patron was grabbing the last item in stock of at that exact moment.) Duct tape Xs on the floor helped you maintain a six-foot distance from other shoppers, as long as you could leap to the next X, which took some doing.
Within a week, the market was only open from 6 a.m. – 9 a.m. to senior citizens. Senior citizens who didn’t like sleeping in, apparently. I’m not among that group. Stuff like toilet paper, bread, eggs and the hand sanitizer we were told to scrub our hands with after even looking out the window were gone as if the stores had been looted. It wasn’t until late spring the hand sanitizer reappeared, meaning I no longer had to pay gold rush prices on the stuff from Chinese vendors on eBay.
How lean were pickings for would-be NASCAR fans on TV last spring? They actually ran sim races in place of your regularly scheduled programming some Sunday afternoons. They weren’t real race cars and they weren’t at real tracks, but a hodgepodge of real Cup drivers, would-be Cup drivers and others sat in their basements or offices at home playing video games. NASCAR fans turned on the TV for iRacing in record numbers, as they were really desperate for something to watch. I feel like I ought to go do a double dose of hand sanitizer admitting I watched every one of those sim races, and I did so with some zeal some weeks despite the fact cars could occasionally drive through each other. And, of course, during the process Kyle Larson got himself into some real trouble using a really awful word.
NASCAR, in fact, did a better job of actually getting their full season and complete championship drive in than most of the stick-and-ball sports. Oh, some races had to be rearranged to circumvent trouble areas. And some races had to be run on weeknights. I’d actually been an advocate of weeknight races as a possible solution to NASCAR’s bloated schedule that typically dragged on from President’s Day weekend all the way to the weekend before Thanksgiving. (Which, of course, this year a lot of us weren’t allowed to celebrate with family and friends anyway. Hard to think kind thoughts about much of calendar year 2020.) In this case, I was really wrong. The TV ratings for those weeknight races rivaled those of a Mennonite barn dance on a local late night UHF channel.
When racing did return to (weekend) TV, there was some notable programming notably missing. At most tracks, there was no practice or qualifying. I’d have sworn I’d never miss them, but all of a sudden, there was a notable lack of variety when it came to entertainment options. Anything beat the alternative of staring at the four walls again for another afternoon. Not by much, but it beat them. It doesn’t appear that either practice or qualifying will return to the airwaves regularly anytime soon anyway.
I take umbrage at some stories I’ve seen headlined with something like, “Barnhardt wins pole at East Choo-chester Speedway.” To win something, you have to compete against others who want the same prize and do better at it than they do. Right now, the driver who starts first in a race is awarded that honor by a complex formula based on previous success earlier this season. I’m not sure I understand how it works, nor am I certain it’s worth taking my time to figure out. Starting first in a NASCAR event these days is equivalent to one of those summer camp trophies for participation.
The new reality seems to have affected some drivers and teams more than others. Kyle Busch has made it known, usually at a whiny holler, that he’s not a fan of the new system. (Yes, I am doing the same thing, just much more quietly, minus the profanity and throwing in an occasional polysyllabic word to keep you on your toes.) Busch and the No. 18 bunch had a track record of showing up for the weekend with a car that wasn’t very good but improving it a great deal during practice, then coming out of nowhere to grab a good starting spot near the front in qualifying. The Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing teams typically showed up at the track with cars ready to rock and roll for the event.
The issue is with each substandard race, NASCAR’s new complicated system of setting the field continues penalizing those running poorly and rewarding those running well. It’s potentially a vicious cycle that is difficult to pull out of the deeper the season goes. Don’t these teams realize you only have to run good in the final 10 races annually to have a successful year?
Of course, there were challenges away from the track in 2020, too, other than the septuagenarians in their Tahoes and Suburbans in the grocery store lot from 6 a.m. – 9 a.m. Some days, it was like an unholy mix of Battlebots and a Mad Max movie out there.
I realize that some of you reading this column (or who had been reading up to this point) have lost a family member or a close friend to the pandemic.
Personally, I have been blessed not to.
In an epic bout of bad timing, my eldest sister and her family were returning from a vacation in Australia about the time the poop hit the fan. She got to spend a long flight from Hawaii to San Francisco with many clearly ill residents of Asian countries. She told me that many of them were hacking their lungs out at the airport in San Francisco. (Are we allowed to admit yet that COVID-19 originated in China? I mean seriously, “How’s the bat today? The bat I got last week here wasn’t too good. The wings were quite leathery and a fang was missing.”) After she got home, my sister got quite ill and we were all scared to death she had COVID, but a merciful Lord spared us. My niece did get a confirmed diagnosis; however, in her case, it was little more than a severe cold that lasted a week. She did lose her sense of smell and it has yet to return, yet we realize it could have been a hell of a lot worse.
Despite the good luck, I remain wary as we’re not out of the woods yet. Like some of you, I am sure I dread having an old friend or acquaintance come up to me and start the conversation with, “Did you hear about –” knowing what’s to follow isn’t likely to be good news.
For all its challenges and headaches, 2020 did offer NASCAR some rewards. The same driver won the championship and Most Popular Driver Award, which happens about as often as a lunar eclipse in Maui. As noted above, the sport did manage to hold their full slate of races, which a lot of the stick-and-ball ones did not.
Yet even as this nation approaches herd immunity and a growing number of Americans have been vaccinated to slow the pandemic’s spread, challenges lay ahead for the US of A and NASCAR. The “New Normal” that lies ahead is most likely not going to be much like the Old Normal we long for. And it seems lately that nobody can agree on much of anything. You have the deniers who want to ban masks now and run naked through Central Park claiming COVID is all hype and no real threat. (Or order a round for the house in Houston.) Then, you have the Doomsday Sect that wanted elected officials in their hometowns to buy open horse-drawn wagons and have them paraded through town with some unkempt dude hollering, “bring out your dead!!!”
If history teaches nothing else, it is that history never teaches anything in the present, only in the future. In the present, history is only old news. I’m not dead yet.
In fact, I think I’m feeling better.
Oh, don’t be such a baby. You will be soon.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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