NASCAR 2020: What a long, strange trip it’s been

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - MAY 17: A general view of the pace car leading the field prior to the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020 in Darlington, South Carolina. NASCAR resumes the season after the nationwide lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Well, they did it. Sunday night after Phoenix Raceway cleared everyone involved in NASCAR could take a deep breath, sigh, and realize that what had seemed impossible just a few months before really did happen. A full NASCAR season, 36 Cup races, was in the books. Getting there however was one long strange trip.

The 2020 NASCAR season was like a huge patchwork quilt sewn together with swatches of big stories each of which could have made its own single blanket. It was a chaotic mix of highs and lows with new beginnings, sad and happy endings, and renewed hope for the future.

Trying to weave all these is no easy task. It’s like a yearbook with a cover photo that could come from several places.

The season began much like many of the others. The Hall of Fame class was inducted, Erik Jones won the Busch Clash at Daytona in dramatic fashion, and the annual Daytona 500 media day went off without a hitch. Then just days before the Daytona 500, whispers turned to loud rumblings as the sport kicked off its season with a visit by a sitting U.S. President. As was his nature this president, like no others in our nation’s history, didn’t sneak in under the radar. Air Force 1 circled the track, and the president riding in the “Beast” led the field before handing the top spot over to Jimmie Johnson who was starting his final season.

The lightning and thunder moved in, the president slipped away, and the “Great American Race” was delayed until the following evening. The race finally ended late Monday night with Denny Hamlin winning while the rest of us held our collective breaths after Ryan Newman’s horrific crash under the checkered flag.

Newman would be hospitalized and many of us feared the worst. Miraculously, however, Newman would leave that same hospital only a few days later holding hands with his daughters while the rest of us shed tears of joy.

Those stories alone would make for a memorable season. But in fact, the year was just getting started.

By March COVID-19 was raging around the world, and cascading like a tidal wave across the U.S. On Wednesday March 11, the NBA ceased operations before a game after a player tested positive. The league said it was suspending its season until further notice.

The next day, Thursday, NASCAR announced that the next two races, at Atlanta and Homestead, would be held without fans, something few ever thought possible. After all, NASCAR was built on having fans in seats, wandering pit road and the garage area prior to a race. The thought of having a race without fans seemed unimaginable, like a real-life episode of the Twilight Zone.

I had flown into Atlanta that Thursday morning and heard the news as I was checking into my hotel not far from the track. The next morning, I made my way through the lobby past lines of disappointed fans checking out. The drive in was a bizarre parade of RV’s heading away from the track. In all my years covering the sport of NASCAR I had never seen anything like it. A few RVs were still scattered around the grounds of the track. Fans already knew they wouldn’t be able to actually go inside the track but wanted to be near it. One fan, whose family had driven from Wisconsin, was gutted. She had traveled all the way to see her hero, Jimmie Johnson, race at Atlanta one last time. Now all she hoped for was to be able to hear cars going around the track. She, and thousands of others would be disappointed.

I sat in the media center that Friday morning awaiting word from NASCAR on what came next. We in the media already knew there would be no garage access, no interactions with drivers or teams; we could either remain in the media center, or the press box, not travel back and forth as was the normal routine for many, myself included.

The next few hours were spent watching the members of the NASCAR PR team starting at laptops across the room, talking in hushed tones to each other, or rushing outside when their phone rang so their one-sided conversations could not be heard. On social media all manner of news was thrown about. Much of it was wrong, some of it not. Teams still in North Carolina were stopped at the airport and told to go home. Haulers not yet at the track were turned around. Just before noon the word came down: the race at Atlanta would be postponed, as would the race at Homestead the following week.

That led to a scramble for me to get a flight back to Florida before Monday. I was able to get a spot later that afternoon; checked out and was home by 9:00 p.m. wondering just what would come next.

The shutdown would last for 10 long weeks. Those of us who make a living reporting on the sport wondered how our bills would be paid. Those in the rest of the industry also faced an uncertain future. NASCAR had already planned a round of layoffs before the shutdown and those took place unimpeded. Many of the people I had dealt with, and befriended through the years, were gone. Team owners struggled to make ends meet, and many team members wondered what came next.

In a preview of what was to come from NASCAR, iRacing, an online racing platform that hung around the fringes of the sport for years, suddenly rose to prominence. The iRacing Pro Invitational Series seemed to come together with backing from NASCAR in a relatively short amount of time. What began on social media as a game among friends was soon being broadcast on Fox Sports. It wasn’t long before thousands were watching online via Twitch streams and on TV.

The iRacing Pro Invitational Series kept the sport relevant and gained attention for NASCAR in the mainstream media as top drivers raced from home via “sim rigs” that ranged from the simple, like Timmy Hill’s desktop outfit, to the elaborate rig Denny Hamlin used. Hill would win an online race, as would Hamlin, though Hamlin also got some press after his daughter accidently turned his rig off while her dad was leading a race. Fans, and media, learned how to watch Twitch streams, laughed as Clint Bowyer tried his hand at commentating while online racing and saw the return to racing, at least online, of Jeff Gordon.

Not all was sunshine and roses during this online racing period. Bubba Wallace lost a sponsor, and the rest of us online neophytes learned about rage quitting. Kyle Larson lost his job when he uttered a racial slur during an online race outside of the iRacing Pro Invitational Series. The Larson news was big, as was the naming of his replacement at Chip Ganassi Racing, Matt Kenseth.

The iRacing Pro Invitational Series was surprising as NASCAR has always been known more as a massive bureaucracy that doesn’t turn on a dime. Yet, the series quickly came together. In the “before times” any change NASCAR makes would normally take months of planning, preparation and even scenario planning. The iRacing Pro Invitational Series, however, was the first sign that NASCAR was undergoing a paradigm shift of sorts.

DOVER, DELAWARE – MAY 03:  (Editors note: This image was computer generated in-game) Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford,races during the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Finish Line 150 at virtual Dover International Speedway on May 03, 2020 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

While everyone’s attention was fixed on iRacing, behind the scenes, NASCAR was working on getting real cars back on real tracks. Working with the teams, tracks, broadcast partners, local and state governments, and the CDC, plans were drawn up. On April 30th, the return to racing was announced. The goal was to complete all 36 Cup races, four were run prior to the shutdown, though that first announcement showed only four Cup races, two Xfinity races, and a Truck series race. All would be run at Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, tracks within driving distance of Charlotte the home for most of the teams. There would be no practice, no qualifying, no fans, crews would be limited, as would media, and drivers would show up alone on race day, get in their cars, race, then go home. NASCAR created a “bubble” and access was strictly limited.

So it was on May 17 that the odd sight of a Cup series race, the first one day show, taking the green flag at Darlington with empty stands in the background. It ended with Kevin Harvick winning and looking uncomfortable standing at the start-finish line doing a post-race interview.

The Cup series would race at Darlington again three days later, on a Wednesday night, moving to Charlotte the following week for another midweek race. They would go on to run the traditional Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and soon began to move further afield.

Chase Elliott would win the Truck race at Charlotte beating Kyle Busch and collecting a $100,000 bounty offered by Kevin Harvick, and boosted by Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis, to any fulltime Cup driver who could beat Busch in a truck race. Elliott did so only two days after he tangled with Busch at Darlington. After the win Elliott got out of his truck at the start finish line and took a bow, mimicing a move Busch does after he wins a race. Elliott would go on to win the rain delayed Cup race two days later.

NASCAR released a second schedule that included races at Bristol, Atlanta, and Martinsville. Those would be followed up with races in Miami and Talladega, both of which would include a limited number of fans for the first time since the shutdown.

The next part of the makeup schedule was announced in early June. Tracks included Pocono, Indianapolis, Kentucky, and Kansas which were on the original schedule. Chicagoland, Iowa, and New Hampshire lost their dates as part of a “realignment” in order to make up races. A couple weeks later NACAR announced the 2020 All-Star Race would be held at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15th only the second time in its history it would be at a track other than Charlotte. The race would mark the debut of a new “choose rule” which allows drivers to choose the lane they want on a restart and the cars would also use neon lights underneath. The track allowed 30,000 fans to attend, the biggest gathering of sports fans in the entire country since the pandemic began.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – MAY 17: A NASCAR official with a mask looks on prior to the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020 in Darlington, South Carolina. NASCAR resumes the season after the nationwide lockdown due to the ongoing Coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The middle part of the makeup schedule won’t be remembered so much for what happened on the track, however, as much as what was happening in the real world that spilled over to the track.

In early June, George Floyd, an African American man, died while in police custody in Minneapolis. His death spurred protests across the country. Prior to the race in Atlanta, NASCAR’s lone Black Cup driver, Bubba Wallace wore a “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt, a reference to the words Floyd spoke before he died as a police officer kneeled on his neck. Prior to the race the field was stopped along the frontstretch and the engines were silenced. Crew members stood on the pit wall as a message from NASCAR president Steve Phelps was shown on the Fox broadcast. Then as the field rolled off to begin the race, a video featuring a number of top drivers vowing to “listen and learn” was aired. The video included seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Wallace. Drivers had already posted it on their social media accounts.

The following week, after Wallace was interviewed on national TV and said it was time, NASCAR banned the display of Confederate flags at its events and properties.

Racism would again be the topic of conversation a few weeks later when NASCAR arrived at Talladega Superspeedway. Sunday’s Cup race was postponed due to weather until Monday. That Monday morning news broke that a garage pull appearing to be fashioned into a noose had been found in the garage stall being used by the No. 43 team of Wallace. The FBI was called into investigate. But it was the show of unity that gained all the attention.

Prior to the start of the race, every driver in attendance along with Wallace’s boss Richard Petty who flew in Monday morning just to support his driver, pushed the No. 43 car to the front of pit road. All gathered there during the invocation and the singing of the National Anthem. The movement carried over from social media where the hashtag #IStandWithBubba began to trend. The track painted the hashtag on the infield grass prior to the race. Drivers had been motivated to stand with Wallace thanks to Kevin Harvick who started a group text among the driver and was urged on by Jimmie Johnson.

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – JUNE 22: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 Victory Junction Chevrolet, kneels as team owner, and NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty and NASCAR drivers stand in solidarity with Wallace prior to the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on June 22, 2020 in Talladega, Alabama. A noose was found in the garage stall of NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace at Talladega Superspeedway a week after the organization banned the Confederate flag at its facilities. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

In the end the noose incident was all a misunderstanding. After an investigation, the FBI announced that the “noose” found in the garage stall had been there in the garage since at least last year. In the aftermath, Wallace would become the face of NASCAR’s diversity efforts and pick up a few sponsors new to the sport along the way.

Early July brought the announcement of the final part of the makeup schedule that would mark the end of the regular season. It was highlighted by a road Cup Series course race at Daytona for the first time in NASCAR’s modern era, replacing Watkins Glen in New York a state that was sill under a wide lockdown due to the pandemic. The final part of the schedule included a return to Daytona for a traditional oval race to end the regular season.

Also, in July, Jimmie Johnson would become the first Cup driver to test positive for COVID-19 and was forced to sit out the July 5th race at Indy, missing his last opportunity as a fulltime Cup driver to race a stock car at Indy. Austin Dillon would test positive in August and was forced to sit out the road course race at Daytona.

Daytona was also the first time I entered NASCAR’s “bubble”. It was an odd experience to say the least. Forms to be signed electronically, temperature checks prior to entry and only being allowed in the press box prior to the race.

The final races were revealed in early August with the 10 playoff races originally on the schedule remaining the same. Also, in August, Erik Jones learned he would be replaced by Christopher Bell at Joe Gibbs Racing starting in 2021.

William Byron would win the oval race that ended the regular season at Daytona, and Johnson saw his hopes for race for a record-breaking eighth series championship end two laps prior to the checkered flag when he was swept up in an 11-car crash. Johnson would finish the season winless, his last victory coming in 2017.

The Cup playoffs began at Darlington, where the sport had returned in May. Kevin Harvick won again, this time cementing his status as title favorite.

Meanwhile NASCAR’s Silly Season never missed a beat. Ross Chastain was named the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy replacing Kenseth, who had subbed for Larson. Chase Briscoe was announced as the driver for the No. 14 replacing Clint Bowyer who moves to the broadcast booth for Fox next season, and Erik Jones was announced as the driver of the No. 43. That news came a few days after Wallace let it be known that he would be leaving Richard Petty Motorsports after 2020. And for good reason. Denny Hamlin confirmed rumors a short time later he would be starting a team, 23XI Racing, with NBA legend Michael Jordon next season and Wallace would be the driver of the No. 23.

Other teams announced they were shuttering (Leavine and Germain), getting smaller (Go Fas Racing) and expanding (Spire). Justin Marks (with driver Daniel Suarez), BJ McLeod and Matt Tifft all acquired charters to form teams next season joining 23XI Racing. Chad Knaus said he would be leaving the pit box and moving to an executive role with Hendrick Motorsports, while Alex Bowman will take over the No. 48 at Hendrick in place of Johnson.

Wood Brothers Racing came to an understanding that will have Matt DiBenedetto in their No. 21 for another season until that ride is taken over by Austin Cindric in 2022.

Larson was the last driver to fall in place. He applied for reinstatement to NASCAR, which was granted. Not long after Larson was announced as the driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy which is returning to the track after a long hiatus.

Also, in September, NASCAR finally released its 2021 Cup schedule. It had been highly anticipated when the year began but had been lost in the jungle that was 2020. The new schedule features new venues, more road courses and even a dirt race at Bristol. Any other year this schedule would have been the lead story. In 2020 however, while exciting, it seemed almost an afterthought.

Weather played a factor at several races in 2020. In addition to the one-day delay at the season opening Daytona 500, lightning forced a delay at Homestead. But it was rain that brought several highs and lows. Talladega was postponed a day due to rain, but when NASCAR got the ROVAL in early October the series was ready. With rain tires allowed on road courses, AJ Allmendinger won the Xfinity race in the pouring rain Saturday and with more showers in the forecast for Sunday the anticipation began to build with many hoping to see the NASCAR Cup series race in the rain for the very first time. Despite a wet start though, the race turned dry with Chase Elliott scoring another win.

That was a harbinger of things to come, both for Elliott and NASCAR.

When the series got to Texas the rains started falling Sunday after 53 laps. With no rain tires for ovals, the series was forced to wait three agonizing days until the weather cleared enough to race. It was the longest rain delayed race in NASCAR since 1973. Kyle Busch eventually won, his first win of 2020. Sadly, for him however the win came a few weeks too late as the defending series champion had been knocked out of title contention after Charlotte.

In perhaps the most dramatic race in several seasons, Elliott won at Martinsville to make the Championship 4. Coming into Martinsville in a must-win situation, 25 points below the cutoff line Elliott led nearly half the laps to win. Kevin Harvick meanwhile had been struggling coming into Martinsville. Despite having a comfortable lead of 42 points over the line, Harvick could never keep up and when it was all over, combined with Elliott’s win, the winner of a series leading 9 wins was knocked out of the final 4.

The final race of the season turned out to be nothing short of a crowning achievement for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott. In the days leading up to the last race both the Truck and Xfinity series winners, and champions, had been determined only after late cautions set up overtime finishes. Elliott had a 4 second lead in the closing laps and was expecting a caution at any moment. That caution never came and there was no drama as Elliott was able to cruise to his fifth win of 2020 and his first NASCAR Cup championship. It was also the first title for Hendrick Motorsports since Jimmie Johnson’s final title in 2016, and fittingly came on the day of Johnson’s final race.

And when the tire smoke cleared, NASCAR had completed 83 races among its top 3 touring series since returning on May 17. They had pulled it off.

This season was like no other. NASCAR, its partners, teams and even media all learned to operate in a “new normal.” There were no meetings in the garage, no in person press conferences.

Next season will feature those new venues, a dirt race, an All-Start Race in Texas, and much more. Given that the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging across the country expect limited fans, one day shows, and the NASCAR “bubble.” As for the future.

“There are things that are out of our control,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps said at Phoenix. “Will we scenario plan for all the things we can identify? The answer is yes, we are going to. I think we showed this year as a sport that we did as good or a better job than any sport did, frankly, getting back early and often.

“We’re the only major sport that finished a full season. Certainly, proud of that.”

“What happens in the future is difficult to say because we don’t know what it looks like, don’t know whether it’s going to be federal, local.  As of now we’re going to go to Daytona and run the Daytona 500 on February 14th, then we’re going to adjust as needed based on what things are thrown at us.”

Now that the 2020 season is over, there is little doubt that whatever is thrown at NASCAR next year will be caught. Because as we all learned this season NASCAR can not only think out of the box, they can shred it and react to a changing situation in a hurry. Bring on 2021, it would seem that NASCAR is ready to go.

Greg Engle