From the 2.5 mile superspeedway in Daytona Beach, Florida to the 1 mile oval in the desert of Avondale, Arizona, we NASCAR fans have been treated to an unforgettable season of racing. We spent 37 weeks of this crazy year bonding over the sport we love. From a global pandemic, to examples of racial injustice, the NASCAR community went on a roller coaster of emotions. What seemed like what would be another normal year of racing soon hit a brick wall.
The 2020 NASCAR season started off just like any other, with the Clash at Daytona, followed by the biggest race in NASCAR, the Daytona 500. After an average race which was pushed to Monday due to rain, the leaders were coming to the checkered flag. In a pack led by Ryan Newman, we thought we were going to get an exciting finish, until Ryan Blaney ducked low. Newman went to block Blaney’s run and was turned head on at over 100 mph. The resulting impact flipped Newman’s no. 6 Roush Fenway Ford upside down. As Denny Hamlin crossed the line first, Newman’s car was struck again at high speed by Corey LaJoie. After Newman’s car came to a stop, we all held our breath fearing the worst. Newman was transferred to a hospital close to the track, and we continued holding our breath until a video surfaced of Newman walking out of the hospital holding the hands of his daughters. As we all breathed that sigh of relief knowing Newman was ok, trouble was brewing on the other side of the world.
In late 2019, a vicious disease had been discovered and began to spread. Fast. The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic had officially begun. As it spread to the United States, no one knew what the future would hold. On the 11th of March, the sports world was turned upside-down. The NBA became the first major American sports league to suspend competition due to the virus. Soon, other leagues shut down their seasons, while Major League Baseball shut down before their regular season even began. As the sports world went dark, fans turned to the new light; NASCAR. NASCAR was set to keep its season going that weekend at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia, and the following weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, albeit without fans in attendance.
However, as teams arrived at the track, the news broke that NASCAR had suspended its season as well. As schools and businesses shut down and the country went dark, a new light was lit in the darkness of the world. eSports. More specifically, iRacing. Just two weeks after NASCAR suspended their season, the inaugural race of the NASCAR iRacing Pro-Invitational Series from the simulated Homestead-Miami Speedway was set. The production crew at Fox Sports made the broadcast feel like a real race and even had one of the competitors, Clint Bowyer, in the studio as an in-race reporter.
Just as the NASCAR community recovered from the shutdown, the next bump in the road was fast approaching. The iRacing phenomenon was growing, inspiring drivers to hold their own events. One such event was Landon Cassil’s Monza Madness. During said event, NASCAR star Kyle Larson was testing to see if his mic was working. He keyed his mic and said: “Can you hear me?” Before an answer was given, Larson uttered a racial slur. A video clip of the exchange went viral and less than 24 hours later, Larson had lost his ride and every sponsor endorsement. His NASCAR career seemed to be over right then. Larson released an apology video on his social media accounts then proceeded to delete all of his social media accounts a few days later.
Finally, after ages of bad news, some good news emerged. Prior to the Pro-Invitational Series race at Talladega, Ryan Newman appeared on the telecast and revealed he was cleared to return to racing when NASCAR returned. Also around this time is when NASCAR announced they were working with tracks, teams, and media personnel to find a date to return to live racing. After some speculation, reports emerged that NASCAR would be returning to real racing. And sure enough, on May 17th, at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, the green flag flew once again.
After a grueling month and a half of racing, sometimes having two races a week, NASCAR began to return to normalcy. After a scheduling shuffle, the postponed Homestead race became the first to allow fans back at the track. Unfortunately, a new issue had emerged in the world of NASCAR, and that issue was weather. The second Darlington race was shortened by rain, the Homestead race was delayed by lightning and rain, and the Talladega race was pushed to Monday due to rain. However, the rain was the least of everybody’s concerns that Talladega weekend.
In addition to the COVID pandemic, another issue was on the horizon. Racial inequality. NASCAR is no stranger to racism especially given its southern roots. When Wendell Scott, an African American driver won a race in 1964, a scoring error was created to allegedly protect Scott from a rowdy crowd, enraged that a black man had won. Even as fans have cleaned up their act, the Confederate Flag has remained present at NASCAR events. Bubba Wallace, (the only African American competitor currently in the Cup series), among others, publicly called for its removal from NASCAR. Amid Wallace’s comments, as well as other racially motivated events, this request was granted, which had mostly positive reviews. However, late Sunday night at Talladega whilst waiting out a rain delay, a noose was spotted in the garage stall occupied by the 43 team. Although Bubba never spotted the noose, NASCAR feared the worst and launched an investigation and involved the FBI. Monday morning, Bubba’s team investigated the car to make sure it had not been tampered with. As the cars sat on the grid prior to the race, every driver and every crew member from every team formed together in an act of unity and pushed Bubba Wallace’s car to the front of the grid. The investigation came back and showed that the “noose” was in fact a garage pull rope. However, it was only rope tied in that fashion at all of NASCAR’s tracks after a thorough investigation.
As the season pressed on, the teams arrived in Indianapolis for the Brickyard 400. The day before the race, news broke that NASCAR had its first positive COVID-19 case in 2 months of being back. Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson tested positive the day before the race. He was replaced by NASCAR xFinity Series driver Justin Allgaier for the race. Allgaier was knocked out of the race on lap 15 due to a crash on pit road. In addition, this race was also impacted by rain which delayed the start of the race, adding to the growing number of races affected by weather.
Approximately 10 days after the Brickyard 400, NASCAR made a pit stop in Bristol, Tennessee for the rescheduled All-Star race. I was at this historic event as this was the first time the All-Star event was not held in NASCAR’s hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, again due to Covid circumstances. In addition, the track was set to allow up to 30,000 fans in the venue. This was big as it was the highest capacity sporting event since the shutdown. The speedway staff did an excellent job social distancing parties in the grandstands. However, the midway was not the same. Even though masks were required when you weren’t at your seat, some people did not wear theirs at all and there were some areas with high congestion and foot traffic and low mask wearing.
By this point, NASCAR was in its final stretch before the playoffs. With the virus slowing down and most sports back in action, things were starting to look normal. NASCAR was allowing fans at most tracks again, just with heavy safety measures in place. Yet, NASCAR was struck with its second case in 4 months. Austin Dillon had a positive test result days before the Daytona road course race. Kaz Grala was his substitute for the race and finished 7th. The good news for Dillon, though, was he won at Texas a few weeks prior, locking him into the playoffs.
The regular season closed out where it began, at Daytona International Speedway. William Byron, who went on a tear during the iRacing series, finally proved himself in the real Cup Series world and won. Jimmie Johnson, the seven time Cup champion, missed the playoffs in his final season. This set the 16 driver playoff field, led by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin and featured first-time playoff drivers Matt DiBenedetto and Cup rookie Cole Custer. Title-favorite Kevin Harvick won two of the three races in round one and Brad Keselowski won the other. After round one, the aforementioned Dibenedetto and Custer as well as Ryan Blaney and William Byron were eliminated.
The twelve others moved onto the next race in Las Vegas, where hometown hero Kurt Busch won the race and advanced to the round of 8. The following week at Talladega, Denny Hamlin won in a controversial finish. The win at Vegas was helpful for Kurt Busch as his Talladega race ended with his car flying over another in a massive crash. The second round of the playoffs closed out in Charlotte, North Carolina for the Roval race. Chase Elliott, an ace on the road courses, took home his second straight Roval win. After the second round was complete, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch, and Clint Bowyer were eliminated. The third round of the playoffs began at Kansas, and Joey Logano locked himself into the championship race at Phoenix.
The following week at Texas was a strange one to say the least. The race went green on Sunday, with a threat of rain at the track. Soon after the race began, a mist picked up around the track. It wasn’t enough to render a caution, even though the track had begun to accumulate moisture. On a restart, Kevin Harvick got caught in the moisture and his car went up the track and into the wall. Then the caution for rain was thrown. The race was postponed to Monday, but the mist from Sunday hung around all day Monday, so the race was moved to Tuesday. A window to race was there, but just before the race was set to return to TV, the mist returned to the track. Finally on Wednesday, the race resumed.
Kevin Harvick did not recover from the contact with the wall and a lack of stage points from Texas put the championship favorite on the chopping block heading into the cutoff race at Martinsville. After early contact with Matt Kenseth, Harvick found himself in a deep hole. If he wanted to make the championship race in Phoenix, a driver not below the cut line would have to win. Unfortunately for Harvick, a driver below the cut line, Chase Elliott, did in fact take the victory. Harvick was only out by one point and coming off turn four, he spun Kyle Busch to try and get the point. However, Harvick spun himself out as well. Harvick, the championship favorite who had a season-leading 9 wins, would not be contending for a championship. The other drivers eliminated after round three were Kurt Busch, Martin Truex, Jr., and Alex Bowman.
After Martinsville, the final four was set for the championship race. The four drivers competing for the title were Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. The race was uneventful; only one caution for incidents, but the battles between the championship contenders were exciting. In the end, it came down to a battle of pit crews. Chase Elliott’s crew, who came in clutch the prior week at Martinsville, were spot-on again and got Elliott’s car just right to catch and pass Joey Logano for the lead and eventually the championship.It was a bittersweet day for Hendrick Motorsports as Jimmie Johnson, who amassed 83 wins and 7 championships for the organization, retired at the end of the season.
Among other things that happened during this season were: Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth retired at the end of the season; Kyle Larson was reinstated after his incident and signed with Hendrick Motorsports for 2021 to fill the vacated ride; Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan formed a new team, 23XI Racing (twenty-three eleven) and signed Bubba Wallace; Leavine Family Racing and Germain Racing shut down at the end of the year. A few other new teams will enter the NASCAR Cup Series in 2021 as well as a few new drivers.
This season of NASCAR was memorable for good things and bad things. NASCAR brought us together when times got tough. We experienced great acts of unity amongst fans and drivers alike. Unprecedented situations proved both the physical, mental, and emotional toughness of these competitors. From the beaches of Daytona at the start of the year, to the deserts of Phoenix at the end and everywhere in between, this was without a doubt the strangest season in NASCAR history. My final thought on this wild 2020 NASCAR season: one of the craziest seasons ever. From an emotional, scary Daytona 500 to seeing NASCAR make bigger strides than any other sport in the pandemic. They did not lose any events or have a major outbreak amongst crews. I felt touched seeing Ryan Newman’s progress and recovery and frustration and disappointment during rain delays. Some races were better than others, some were more controversial, but I will never forget this season of NASCAR Racing.