NASCAR’s Pocono doubleheader shows how glorious fans’ return will be

Racing without spectators is a necessity in the COVID-19 world.

But it will be so nice when the fans can return and be safe at the race track, because they create the atmosphere that truly embodies the NASCAR spirit of “loud and passionate.”

With the exception of hundreds of military members and their families at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and a few thousand at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this month, the races since NASCAR returned in mid-May have not had anyone in the stands.

NASCAR has to race to keep the financial foundation of the sport from collapsing, as NASCAR, the teams and the tracks rely on television money. Yet being at the track, without fans, can feel like going to work, not an event.

There are no cheers, no get-pumped-up driver introductions, no enthusiasm of a vibe from the crowd. While the engines roar, they offer no feeling, no emotion like the roar of a crowd.

That was quite evident at Pocono Raceway this past weekend, as the one experiment NASCAR had already set for 2020 — a weekend doubleheader — couldn’t be judged without fans.

When Kevin Harvick emerged to the silence of the grandstands as he won Saturday, he didn’t even do a burnout.

“I’m not doing any more celebrations with nobody out there to celebrate with,” Harvick said. “Until the fans come back, I’m not doing a burnout, standing on the car, doing any of that stuff. … It doesn’t feel right with all the emotions from the fans to share your emotion, all the things you have from being inside the race car and being excited about everything that was going on from winning the race.

“You come out to silence.”

The Cup weekend doubleheader at Pocono was supposed to test the waters of whether Cup teams, and fans, would rather go to a track once a year but still have two Cup events.

Now, NASCAR and Pocono will have to wait until 2021 to find out how successful a doubleheader would be — not just economically, through how many tickets and camping spots could have been sold, but also to gauge fan reaction. Tickets sales, especially camping, were promising for Pocono until the pandemic.

The Pocono doubleheader likely would have featured a full infield all weekend. It was going to be a party atmosphere, with people trying to get two weekends of fun crammed into a couple of days. Instead, it felt like a baseball or basketball tournament where there are games all day but the home team doesn’t even play that day.

Such is life in the COVID-19 world, at least for a couple more weeks and likely for more events as the virus plagues certain areas of the country.

A couple of tracks — Michigan and Dover — could have doubleheaders as part of rescheduled races, but whether their venues can have fans remains questionable.

Indianapolis and Kentucky won’t have fans the next two weeks, but then there could be tens of thousands fans July 15 at the NASCAR All-Star Race.

Texas and New Hampshire in late July and early August are selling tickets to fans with approval from their state governments. Texas certainly will be an interesting test to see if people will come out despite the rising virus numbers.

If it can be done safely, adding fans would make a big difference. Denny Hamlin said he noticed that just a few thousand at Talladega changed the vibe.

“At Talladega, you can definitely feel the crowd and the atmosphere even with a small amount versus the boneyard you got out here today,” Hamlin said after his win Sunday. “That part of it is definitely different.”

Of course, the drivers don’t miss everything without fans – drivers in the past at Pocono have a choice whether to stay off property or know they are going to be dealing with some loud fireworks that often are a staple of Pocono race weekend at night.

“I’m old – I’m usually asleep by the time the fireworks go off,” the 44-year-old Harvick said.

Yeah, so Harvick didn’t miss the fireworks. But this is certainly something different than anything he has ever been used to in his 20 years of Cup racing.

“There is not a full weekend,” Harvick said. “You show up on race day and you check in and you spend a couple of hours and then you go get in the car.

“The whole vibe is just different because of that exact fact – you don’t have a whole race weekend. You don’t have that interaction with the fans. All the races that we’ve won have just been really strange. You have all of that emotion and there’s nobody there to share it. It’s definitely a much different vibe and very lonely out there.”

Race tracks aren’t supposed to be lonely. They are less fun when they are.

This is not a made-for-TV sport. NASCAR needs to have the atmosphere. The sport won’t feel whole again until fans are back on a regular basis. Once that can be done in a safe environment, that will be glorious.

As Hamlin alluded to, he even misses the banter with people who aren’t his fans.

“When you’re on a roll like we are, I wish I could live it up and get excited and hear the fans and give them a big ‘FU’ and ‘You suck’ and all that stuff,’” Hamlin said with a laugh.

“But maybe another day.”

Xfinity: Briscoe spin and win

Chase Briscoe punctured a tire, spun and won in the final 25 laps Sunday at Pocono. It marked his fourth win of the season.

“I was lucky that it finally blew out on the exit of the tunnel turn [Turn 2], instead of right in the middle of it,” said Briscoe, who likely would have hit the wall if the tire blew in the turn. “I was really fortunate, too, that I was able to whoa it up.

“I ended up probably one or two feet off the inside wall, so that would have definitely ended our day. For the left-rear to not get the crush panel completely knocked out was a huge blessing in disguise, so I definitely thought our race, for the most part, was over as far as winning.”

Gander Truck: First-time winner

Brandon Jones had won a couple of Xfinity races but had not won a truck race in his first 45 starts. That changed with his 46th career start in the series, as he won Sunday at Pocono driving the No. 51 for Kyle Busch Motorsports – the same team that Busch has driven to a couple wins this year.

“This is big,” Jones said. “That was the only thing I was missing and now that everything I’ve raced in, I’ve got at least one win in. Pretty big, it rally is. It means so much for me.

“When I was 13 years old racing in short tracks, the 51 [of Busch] was at the race track every week in super late models and I knew one day that was what I wanted to be doing was racing with Kyle Busch and now I’m here winning races with him.”

On The Air


Xfinity Pennzoil 150 (Indianapolis road course), 3 p.m., NBC


Cup Brickyard 400 (Indianapolis oval), 4 p.m., NBC

Stat of Note

With his win Saturday at Pocono, Kevin Harvick now has not won on just two Cup tracks – Kentucky and Charlotte road course.

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They Said It

“[It] was just like the last seven years here: Run well, been in contention to win. The only difference today is we ended up on top. [Not having won here] doesn’t bother me because we run well. If we were coming here and not running well, just a place that you didn’t like driving at [it would]. But I enjoy coming up here, I enjoy the race track, I enjoy the challenge that it creates.”

— Kevin Harvick after his first Pocono win