NASCAR will race Sunday, but when will the fans get to return? The biggest questions NASCAR still faces

NASCAR fans will love watching the upcoming races at Darlington and Charlotte – on television.

But they will also be a little jelly. Many will wish they could be there in person, as NASCAR resumes its season following a nine-week suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The biggest question that remains for NASCAR amid its return to racing is, when will fans be allowed at the race track?

There are two main track operators: NASCAR owns 12 of the 23 tracks where the NASCAR Cup Series competes. Speedway Motorsports LLC owns eight. Three (Dover, Indianapolis and Pocono) are independently owned.

Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith spoke with FOX Sports on Friday and gave his view regarding when fans could return. He obviously wants fans back as soon as possible in a safe and responsible way.

Smith’s tracks are Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Kentucky, Las Vegas, New Hampshire, Sonoma and Texas.

“It kind of starts with restaurants and bars being open,” Smith said. “If we can’t do that, then we can’t host these larger events. Lots of states have plans that are phasing in the beginnings of restaurants being open.

“That’s a big step in a positive direction. We are working, communicating with lots of governors and mayors and county leaders across the country to stay in touch with them and collaborating with them to get back to hosting live crowds.”

With NASCAR being at big outdoor facilities, Smith said there is lots of room to move around compared to an arena. He noted that Shanghai Disneyland is open, and that could show the potential to have crowds outside.

“I’m optimistic about getting back to live crowds,” Smith said. “We’re seeing slow steps towards that right now. … There’s a plan, a path forward to particularly outdoor events. Lots of parks are opening up, and that is a step in the right direction.”

Smith said he expects the garage area to “remain a very tightly controlled area for quite some time and we won’t have the huge numbers of people who have access to pit road and the garage area.”

Obviously, it is difficult to predict when fans will be allowed. It is possible they could be allowed at some tracks and not others. In Seoul, South Korea, nightclubs and bars were shut down a week after their reopening after a COVID-19 outbreak was traced back to a bar-goer.

“Certainly the NASCAR fan is passionate, and we want to conduct events with fans any chance we can get,” NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said on April 30. “But until we believe that it’s a safe environment, and we can work with the local and state communities to make that happen, we’re going to wait until we get that OK.”

IndyCar will also have its first race without fans, June 6 at Texas. Smith said the decisions will be made by local and state officials.

“This isn’t a speedway decision, this isn’t a NASCAR decision, this is a health decision that was determined by the state in keeping with the department of health and health experts giving guidance of how to get some action on the track going,” Smith said.

Smith also said when races are open to fans, it would likely be at a reduced capacity and the tracks likely would give existing ticket holders first dibs on those opportunities.

For those who struggle with the idea that teams can be at the track but not fans, Smith said the track can be treated as a workplace.

“It’s more workplace-based rules and we have to have certain limits on how many people can come in. Right now, by the state’s rules, no venue is allowed to host a major spectator event,” Smith said.

“We just can’t do it.”

Fans have called Charlotte Motor Speedway to find out if they can camp out and tailgate outside the venue. They will not be allowed. All of the entrances to the speedway property will be closed.

“I love the enthusiasm and that is part of fandom,” Smith said. “Stay home and tailgate at home. … They’re not going to be able to get into the facility and I think they would have a lot more fun at home.

“Certainly, nobody wants to have to run people off who are dedicated fans. But that’s the position we’re in with current state guidelines not being able to host live events.”

While the question of fans returning is the biggest, it isn’t the only question that remains unanswered, as NASCAR plans to conduct seven races (four Cup, two Xfinity, one Gander Trucks) in an 11-day stretch starting May 17 at Darlington.

NASCAR has yet to announce how lineups will be set. It potentially will use a mix of a random draw and either point standings or finish from the previous race. It also hasn’t announced how it will handle the competition caution for the races and if teams will be given additional time to work on their cars at that time because they were not allowed to practice.

NASCAR has announced the stages for each event, as well as which race those events will replace on the 2020 schedule:

Darlington:

– NASCAR Cup Series race May 17 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX) replaces Chicagoland. Stages: 90-95-108 (293 laps total)

– NASCAR Xfinity Series race May 19 (8 p.m. ET, FS1) replaces Chicagoland. Stages: 45-45-57 (147 laps)

– NASCAR Cup Series race May 20 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1) replaces Richmond’s spring race. Stages: 60-65-103 (228 laps)

Charlotte:

– NASCAR Cup Series race May 24 (6 p.m. ET, FOX) is as scheduled. Stages: 100-100-100-100 (400 laps).

– NASCAR Xfinity Series race May 25 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1) moved from May 23. Stages: 45-45-110 (200 laps)

– NASCAR Gander Trucks race May 26 (8 p.m. ET, FS1) moved from May 15. Stages: 30-30-74 (134 laps)

– NASCAR Cup Series race May 27 (8 p.m. ET, FS1) replaces Sonoma. Stages: 55-60-93 (208 laps)

Here are a few other items that NASCAR has revealed in the past week:

– In addition to being ejected from an event, those who disobey NASCAR event protocols could be fined $10,000-$50,000. But that still could lead to questions, said Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin. Said Hamlin about the procedures: “You can read about them all you want. We also heard through the teleconference we had with NASCAR about the protocols. But making sure you’re doing everything exactly the way that they want it. … Obviously there will be a huge microscope on how we’re doing things, making sure it’s done in a safe manner. For all of us it’s just the unknown of making sure we’re doing it the right way.”

– NASCAR medical personnel treating a driver after an accident will have a mask for that driver to put on.

– Competition directors and team executives will have to choose one car to be with for the entire day and stay with the group assigned to that car.

– Only two officials – the series director and vice president of competition – will be allowed in both the garage and the control tower, and they will be separated from the rest of the officials in the control tower.

– There will be no food preparation by teams or NASCAR on-site. NASCAR will arrange for boxed meals to be delivered to teams.

And some additional questions remain:

– Will teams have different rosters because of someone not wanting to come? No team that responded to a FOX Sports request for information indicated they would.

– Have teams lost or added sponsors because of the pandemic and impact on their business? Only one team, of those who responded to questions, stated that it has lost some sponsors, but also added some. That was Rick Ware Racing. Teams that said they had no change in sponsorship: Leavine Family Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports and Front Row Motorsports.

– Will team owners or NASCAR executives who are over 65 attend the events? This question is a little touchy and most answers in response were vague. NASCAR “strongly recommends” those at higher risk not participate, a list that would include team owners Roger Penske, Richard Petty, Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush, Richard Childress, Bob Leavine, Eddie Wood and Gene Haas, as well as NASCAR Chairman Jim France and Vice Chairman Mike Helton.

– NASCAR has not yet released its schedule for any of the three national series beyond May 27.

– And maybe the biggest question of all, what will happen if a driver does show a fever? NASCAR says they will be evaluated and a determination will be made if they will be allowed the race. Said Hamlin: “I’ve obviously checked my temperature throughout this whole thing. I’ve been pretty lucky as far as that’s concerned. I have two kids. They run a temperature all the time. It’s a little nervous for me knowing that you could get a fever or something like that, and it maybe will scare you into thinking you have something that you don’t.”

Stat of Note

Darlington Raceway is statistically the best track for Denny Hamlin when it comes to average finish. Hamlin has an average finish of 7.79 (including two wins) at the track.

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What They Said

“From my standpoint, I’m like, I don’t want [Matt Kenseth] back. I know he gives great information. He can give an organization information. It’s another voice that that organization will hear that’s different than what they’ve had over the last few years. Not better or worse, but just different. So I think he’s probably going to lift that program up, similar to what he did to Roush towards the end.” – Denny Hamlin, a former teammate of Kenseth, on Kenseth now driving for Chip Ganassi Racing