Drivers looking forward to showcasing NASCAR to the world

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 01: William Byron, driver of the #24 HendrickAutoguard/CityChvrltThrwbck Chev, leads the field to start the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 01, 2019 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

After a nearly three-month break NASCAR will hit the track this Sunday at Darlington Raceway.  Of course, in normal times Sunday would have been a day off after the annual All-Star Race in Charlotte the night prior.

But these are far from normal times.

NASCAR, and indeed the world, came to halt in March. Everyone went their separate ways and went into self-isolation; a quarantine to help fight the COVID-19 virus racing across the world faster than any racecar ever built.

On March 13, NASCAR postponed the race at Atlanta that was to take place that weekend.  They added the following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway followed soon after by a complete shutdown of the season.

NASCAR will now return, with minimal crews and no fans, to Darlington. A track chosen because it’s within driving distance of Charlotte, the home base for many teams, and because most teams had already built cars for intermediate tracks.

Starting Sunday NASCAR will hold seven races in 10 days at Darlington and Charlotte Motor Speedway. All will be one day shows with no qualifying save for the Sunday Cup race at Charlotte which will be held on its traditional Sunday before Memorial Day.

The sport has done an admirable job while racing on track has been shut down.  NASCAR embraced its iRacing series staging the Pro Invitational Series featuring real drivers on simulators racing each other from home or wherever they happened to be hunkered down.

While the virtual racing did help fill a void, there is no substitute for the real thing. That real thing will come Sunday with a 400-mile race at Darlington.

It will give NASCAR the chance to showcase its product to the world, a world nearly devoid of professional sports.  There will be no qualifying, no practice, no fans, just racing.  And that could be a problem.  The only practice drivers have had is in simulators, which many will tell you aren’t really a substitute for the real thing. So when 40 car field gets the green flag Sunday, the opportunity for chaos certainly exists.

“It will be exciting to say the least,” Kurt Busch said Thursday.  “When I ran the Indianapolis 500 a few years ago, everybody was hyped up and going three-wide into turn one. It’s because the whole month of practice, preparation, and drafting, you are only doing it with a few cars at a time. This will be the same thing for us.”

“It’s a group of cars, group of professionals, all barreling down into turn one with months of built up anxiety and excitement. Everybody knows it. Everybody can feel it. And I hope everybody uses their best judgement because we all know there is going to be a competition caution for everybody to check their settings with the front splitter, cambers, and the set-up balances. My approach is that we all need to drive down there at an 80% level and then ramp up our percentage of aggressiveness as the race moves forward.”

With no practice the way the car is unloaded will be the setup it has for the race.  And looking at the last race at Darlington may not be much help.

“You obviously don’t know what condition you’re really kind of facing just because of the fact that Darlington last year went into the night,” Kevin Harvick said. “This time it will be a relatively warm day in the sun most of the day, so Darlington is a very sensitive temperature track, so I think you kind of have to evolve as the race evolves.”

Nor will any time be spent working on a car back at the shop. Most shops have been shuttered. In fact, most teams have had very little interaction and most crews will see the car for the first time as they push it to pre-inspection on Sunday.

“I haven’t seen the race car at all,” said crew chief Chad Knaus. “Nope, haven’t seen it or touched it. Nothing.”

“That’s the recommendation by NASCAR for the traveling teams,” he added. “To stay as isolated as they can and try to keep everybody at the racetrack as healthy as we can and that’s the protocol we put into place and that’s what we’ve been abiding by.”

Whatever happens Sunday, everyone, including drivers know what is at stake.

“There are gonna be a lot of eyes on our sport and a lot of eyes that haven’t watched our sport maybe before,” Ryan Blaney said. “I feel like it goes back to the iRacing deal and seeing all the people that maybe never watched or new eyes that haven’t watched racing before or them watching the iRacing thing.”

“I feel like when we’re gonna come back we’re one of the very, very few sports that are back and a lot of people are gonna be watching, so it’s gonna be a really big day on Sunday to make sure we put on a good show, not do anything too bad like going into turn one and wrecking 20 cars.  I feel like we’re all professional enough not to do that.  It’s a long race.  Everyone knows what’s at stake of making not only NASCAR look good, but making our sponsors look good as well.”