The wait for race cars to be back on the racetrack is down to a matter of days.
All eyes will be on NASCAR this Sunday afternoon with a 400-mile Cup Series race at the rough and tough Darlington Raceway. It will be the first race NASCAR has held in over two months, and the first test as to whether it can hold races safely and effectively during a pandemic.
There will be no practice and no qualifying. The grandstands will be empty, and Darlington’s infield a near ghost town except for the essential personnel needed to run a race. Drivers are going to show up and rev up their 550-horsepower engine for a highly-anticipated dash into Turn 1, and a possible step toward rediscovering ‘normal’ after COVID-19 changed not only the entire American sports landscape, but everyday life.
Here are five things to watch as the engines fire back up:
1. Racing with restrictions
What happens during this unprecedented stretch of seven races in 11 days will be heavily scrutinized. There is tremendous pressure to get the sport restarted for the financial health of its competitors, but to do so safely and without compromising the integrity of the competition.
Does NASCAR have the best protocols in place? Unfortunately, the events need to run before we know the answer.
These races will run on a scaled-back level. Viewers will not see multiple pit reporters running around the infield, and the Fox broadcast booth will call the race from the Charlotte studio, as they have done for the iRacing events. Photography and independent media presence will be minimal. Teams are limited to 16 people per roster.
“I think it’s a big factor in terms of getting it right,” said NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell. “We realize upfront it’s a huge responsibility for us as a sport. But I’m also confident in the group we’ve gathered to put this plan together. Our entire industry has come together to believe in the plan we’ve put together.
“We’re certainly going to learn as we go. But the process we put in place, I think, gives the industry the confidence that we can be first, we can do this in Darlington.”
NASCAR has made itself the guinea pig for showing whether it’s possible to safely, effectively, and in the most basic manner, put on a live sporting event. Should it work, there will be plenty of satisfaction to go around and lessons to share about how it is possible to return to some sense of normalcy. If it goes wrong, there will be plenty of criticism about putting people at risk in the interests of rushing back to competition.
2. An opportunity to learn
Undoubtedly, NASCAR’s return is going to pop a nice TV rating. With most of the sports world still on pause and the country hungry for any new content, NASCAR being one of the first live events back on television should create interest. Considering the circumstances, though, those numbers should be viewed with caution.
Fans are anxious for racing to return, and when Darlington serves that up on Sunday, that desire will be reflected in the ratings. Then comes the mid-week races for both Darlington and Charlotte.
How realistic and attractive are more mid-week races? There have been Wednesday night Truck Series races at Bristol and Eldora before. But now, the Cup Series gets to take center stage in back-to-back weeks, and in prime time. The Xfinity Series will do so early in the week, on a Tuesday in Darlington, and a Monday at Charlotte.
Another area for NASCAR President Steve Phelps and his team to look at will be the condensed schedule for all three series: a show-up-and-race approach. Officials have canned all practice and qualifying (except for the Coke 600), meaning teams won’t be spending hours upon hours at the track refining every inch of their machines. Drivers will jump into their cars and go.
The prospect of practice or qualifying being banished forever is unrealistic, but can these events demonstrate how much more NASCAR can trim out to make weekends more valuable? How much practice is too much? Are there unnecessary gaps in weekend schedules? Are races too long?
It won’t hurt to use this time to look around and wonder if the at-track process can be more streamlined.
3. Ryan Newman returns
There was at least one benefit to NASCAR being on hiatus, and that was Ryan Newman having time to recover from injuries suffered in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Now medically cleared to compete again, Newman has only missed three races and, through the admission of a playoff waiver, remains championship-eligible should he make the postseason.
Based on the information that Roush Fenway Racing has released, and Newman’s own social media presence, he seems no worse for the wear. Whether or not he is a different driver after experiencing a traumatic crash and injury has yet to be seen. Still, the Indiana native is one of the toughest, elbows-up drivers in the garage, and not just because of his reputation for the way he races.
Committed to winning races and competing for the championship with his No. 6 team, Newman is going to slot right back into the field as if he were never gone. Before COVID-19 forced many into mandatory quarantine, Newman was able to get re-acclimated to his car for a medical test at Darlington, which was said to have gone well.
4. A fresh start for Matt Kenseth and Chip Ganassi Racing
Darlington will be the first time Matt Kenseth has run a competitive lap in NASCAR in a year and a half. The 48-year-old former Cup Series champion last ran when doing a limited schedule with Roush in 2018.
Faced with a need to fill the No. 42 Chevrolet after the team’s sudden split with Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi made the best of a bad situation by landing himself a wily veteran. Kenseth brings experience and reliability to the team, and once he and crew chief Chad Johnston, along with the rest of the group, get on the same page and become familiar with each other, the easier results will come.
Both Ganassi cars were in the playoffs last season, and there is no reason Kenseth could not help them get back there. With Kenseth’s ability and the team showing they are capable of being top 10 contenders, it will be a matter of when the results come, not if.
There are more positives than negatives in this situation. It will be nice to see Kenseth back behind the wheel, given that he never seemed ready to leave, and for the Ganassi organization to come out of a lousy situation able to look forward.
Physically, Kenseth is in good shape, having kept his fitness up through biking and other training. So, although he hasn’t been in a car for an extended period, neither have his fellow competitors, and that puts the field on a somewhat level playing field when he’s trying to get the instinct to kick back in when going into Turn 1 on lap 1 this Sunday.
5. New challenges for teams and drivers
The racing expression “run what you brung” is rarely accurate nowadays. With inspection and multiple practice sessions, teams have plenty of opportunities to dial their cars in, adjust to changing conditions through a weekend, and have their car ready to take the green flag.
Teams will genuinely be running what they bring to the track at Darlington and Charlotte, given the elimination of all the usual early-weekend opportunities for car refinement leading into a race. Without the benefit of track time to get an idea of how the car is going to perform, there is going to be more emphasis placed on an organization’s engineers and simulation tools to build a car ready to race right off the hauler.
In turn, this will make for an interesting first phase of a race, with comers and goers as teams dial in their cars through multiple pit stops and feedback from the driver. Some will be close right from the green flag while others are going need to all the mileage they can get to make the car right.
Crew chiefs and drivers will have to be on their game when it comes to staying on top of track conditions, too. For the first Darlington race in particular, there will be no rubber laid down from practice, qualifying, or the previous day’s Xfinity Series race. Darlington and Charlotte have been sitting as idle as the drivers, and will need laps before getting worn in. These races are going to be ever-changing.
As such, NASCAR’s return is exciting, as are all these variables the sport and its teams are about to face.