Back on Track?
When the NASCAR Cup Series returns to the track, there’s only one thing guaranteed about how the races will end up being run and the procedures involved:
Someone will get the short end of the stick.
NASCAR announced Friday that while the Martinsville Speedway race on May 9 was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it plans to race in May without fans.
It did not give a specific location, but with Atlanta and Homestead cars already prepared – and especially Homestead, where the governor and both the county and city mayors already have mentioned the possibility of NASCAR coming to race – one of those two tracks could be the first where NASCAR can race.
“We will continue to follow the guidance of medical experts on the rescheduling of any events, like races in Homestead,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a statement to FOX Sports. “I do believe it will be possible to return to racing without fans and have the drivers and pit crews follow safety and health guidelines.
“I think we can get back to action, while still protecting the health and safety of our community.”
As NASCAR tries to determine how it can get back to racing as soon as possible, it will have to make decisions about whether to have practice and/or qualifying, how lineups are set if there is no qualifying, whether to have pit stops, what to do if a certain number of crew members or drivers get sick, and probably decisions NASCAR hasn’t even thought about yet.
“We have to work together to come to the conclusion of how we go racing faster than making it perfect for everybody involved,” said Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler. “There are people who will get the short end. There are people who will get an advantage.
“You just have to hope that will roll around enough that it ends up being okay.”
The question is how to race with drivers and crews all the while following safety and health guidelines. NASCAR has had the industry divided into working groups to focus on all aspects of a race weekend. Several teams declined to comment because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
“Everybody has to look at this and understand the way we raced was as close to perfect as we could come up with,” said Geisler, who did not delve into many specifics. “Anything we do is going to be a departure from that, and you have to accept that it’s a departure from that.
“It’s all in the name of getting back racing sooner [which] is a way more important objective than waiting until next year to come back the way we normally do.”
How many people are needed at the race track could depend on if NASCAR opts to have practice. If the teams just qualify and race, fewer people would be needed, because there really wouldn’t be much work on the cars.
If there is no practice, there also might not be a need for backup cars for all teams, because the only risk prior to the race would be qualifying.
“Practice is always helpful, even if it’s just a little bit,” said Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola. “It would present a challenge to not practice, but it would at least be the same for everybody.”
Without practice, teams might not have a good sense of tire wear for the weekend, and that could play into pit stop calls they normally would make during a race.
“There’s going to be a lot of difficulty to know what the falloff will be in a run,” Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron said. “And track position is going to matter and be indicative of what that strategy call is. ... It’s going to be difficult to make those strategy calls. It's going to really come down to instinct.”
If NASCAR opts to scrap qualifying at several races, it could consider a different way of setting the lineup than the traditional 1-to-40 in owner points, because that could give an unfair advantage to those teams at the top of the standings — not necessarily when it comes to the final race results, but certainly the results of the opening stage.
NASCAR also could eliminate pit crews by having breaks or using the controlled pit stop procedures it already planned to use at select Xfinity and truck events this year. Having no pit crews could reduce the number of people who come for the race, which very likely could be teams arriving and having the race all in the same day.
“It's going to be tough,” Byron said. “The ability that we have normally had in practicing and having this conventional string of a schedule throughout a weekend is not going to be there, I don't feel. ... I'm just going to try to make it as normal as possible.”
Geisler said the discussions do include how NASCAR makes it fair and a good show for the fans.
“The spirit of collaboration has probably never been stronger, because we’re all kind of unified against a common enemy right now, and we’re all facing challenges,” Geisler said.
“[We’re] looking at things short, medium and long term – how do we get out of the gates and then some of these things that weren’t maybe quite as fair as we would have liked, how do we roll those back out once things become more normal?”
NASCAR also would need to set up procedures as far as testing and monitoring anyone inside the facility to see if they have a fever or are sick. The question then becomes, what happens if a driver gets sick? Or a certain number of members on a team? Do they not race? And if not, for how long and would NASCAR grant a waiver to allow them to still be eligible for the playoffs?
NASCAR has not made an executive available to talk about those issues since President Steve Phelps held a teleconference a month ago.
“Our intention remains to run all 36 races, with a potential return to racing without fans in attendance in May at a date and location to be determined,” NASCAR said Friday in a statement.
Phelps and NASCAR Vice Chairman Lesa France Kennedy have both been on calls with President Donald Trump where leaders of sports have talked about returning to competition.
The White House task force suggests states can have sporting events without fans if, in general, the states have a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases reported within a 14-day period and have hospitals that can treat patients without crisis care. If that continues in an area for another 14 days without an increase in cases, sporting venues could have fans as long as they follow social distancing measures (in other words, seat more than six feet apart). If that continues in an area for another 14 days without an increase in cases, those tracks could be open to capacity.
“There may be some setbacks,” said infectious disease expert and White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci during President Trump's briefing Thursday. “Let’s face it, this is uncharted water.
“There may be some setbacks that we may have to pull back a little and then go forward. I do see us getting more towards normal.”
The first step would be teams getting back into their race shops. North Carolina currently is under a stay-at-home order that has kept them out of their shops. The order is set to expire April 29. That still would give them time to be ready for a race in mid-May, but NASCAR is hoping that teams possibly could return earlier.
Stat of Note
Kyle Busch had a fifth-place finish Sunday in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race – his best in the previous races was 17th.
Bubba Wallace's comments on Kyle Larson:
What They Said
“It's tough for me to hear potentially when it is [we will return to racing] and when not, and honestly I just try to tune it out a little bit just because I don't know concretely when it's going to be. But I think it's going to be soon rather than later, and I'm excited about that.” — William Byron