COVID-19 and NASCAR: Shops closed, Indy-NASCAR doubleheader on the horizon

Shops closed.

Indianapolis 500 postponed.

Those two moves in the last week will lead to more questions, as NASCAR tries to figure out its future moves to eventually resume racing.

In some ways, it’s hard to think about that right now. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has closed all non-essential businesses, meaning that pretty much all race shops in the NASCAR industry will close effective as of 5 p.m. ET on Monday, as the state and nation continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Businesses that can keep social distancing measures in place theoretically could remain open, but the car building process would be difficult to continue with those measures in-place.

The ban ends April 29, so teams possibly could be ready for the scheduled resumption of the NASCAR Cup Series on May 8-9 at Martinsville Speedway. But Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order Monday that runs through June 10, putting the Martinsville race in serious jeopardy.

NASCAR, which has postponed seven races because of the crisis, has not yet released a revised schedule in part because it apparently doesn’t want to have to send out another revision if it has to postpone more races.

Just because the Indianapolis 500 was postponed doesn’t mean NASCAR won’t race in May. The scope of the preparation needed and the amount of money spent and travel planned for that event likely played into the decision being made March 26.

NASCAR still has a little time to make a decision on Martinsville and beyond, although a decision on Martinsville could come soon in light of the order issued Monday.

NASCAR will look to some midweek races and potential doubleheader weekends to get all of the postponed races run before the start of the playoffs. It only has a few options for doubleheaders; Charlotte (with the all-star race and the Coca-Cola 600), Michigan and Dover are the only tracks that have two weekends scheduled prior to the playoffs that could be turned into doubleheaders to open up other dates on the schedule.

One schedule tweak that has people excited as a result of a postponement is that the NTT IndyCar Series will compete at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 4 prior to the NASCAR Xfinity Series race. The IndyCar race had been scheduled for May and was postponed along with the Indianapolis 500. The Indy 500 will run Aug. 23 but the decision was made to move the road-course race to the NASCAR weekend.

Jimmie Johnson told NBC Sports that he’d be interested in competing in the IndyCar race – Cup practice wouldn’t start until after the Xfinity race.

Whether any IndyCar driver would try to do the Xfinity race probably is unlikely, said 2016 IndyCar champ Simon Pagenaud, who drives for Team Penske.

“Maybe in a different life,” joked Pagenaud, who has won the Indianapolis Grand Prix three times. “I think in real life, it’s a big ask. I would love to do that but I don’t think it would be wise, especially because we’re going to have such a short season, so compact and compressed.

“You really have to focus on one thing at a time. That’s really my personal opinion.”

The idea of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend isn’t new, and with Roger Penske now owning the IndyCar series and the IMS track, it turned into a reality to accommodate races in a condensed schedule.

“It’s been clear for a long time that both series under the right circumstances thought it could be a good thing for the sport and for each of our series,” said Penske Entertainment Corp. CEO Mark Miles. “The spirits have always been willing. It hasn’t necessarily always been the highest priority.

“This sort of just created the opportunity to say,’ Here is an opportunity, let’s go for it.’ There wasn’t much hesitation.”

In addition to impacting the 2020 schedule, the shut down of shops – and likely vendors who provide teams with parts and pieces – could impact the ability for NASCAR to roll out the NextGen car at the start of 2021 as planned.

NASCAR has not announced whether the NextGen car roll out will be pushed later into the 2021 season or to 2022, but with California, North Carolina and Michigan all under similar stay-at-home executive orders, the development of the car by vendors and the manufacturers likely will be delayed.

That decision also could impact team budgets – especially small-team budgets – as the initial outlay to buy the NextGen chassis and bodies and pieces will be in the millions, significantly more when compared to potentially getting used cars ready. The savings would come in the lack of research and development costs and with easily-replaced body panels.

Some teams still are looking for sponsorship for this season, and if they know the costs for the start of next season are reduced, it could help them budget.

“There’s nobody in corporate America that wants to talk about sponsoring and advertising right now with the times that we’re going through,” Richard Petty Motorsports general manager Philippe Lopez said.

Once the racing season resumes, small teams will be taxed with keeping cars ready to race. So having them home now and staying healthy needs to be a priority, Lopez said, if they want to be at full strength when racing resumes.

RPM had closed its shop prior to the North Carolina order.

“My biggest concern is I hope none of my guys get sick and none of their families get sick,” Lopez said. “If I’ve got two or three or four sick, that would impact me from a business standpoint. And from a personal standpoint, I don’t want to see anybody get sick.”

Stat of Note

All of the NASCAR Cup Series and the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series races have been won by drivers with double-digit numbers that are the same digits: Denny Hamlin (11), Joey Logano (22), Alex Bowman (88) and Timmy Hill (66).

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What They Said

“The way I celebrate the win, my wife comes up the stairs, gives me a big hug. My favorite drink is a cup of milk. She gives me a cup of milk. Downed that right away. Hugged her.” – Timmy Hill describes his celebration after winning Sunday