The checkered flag at the end of Saturday’s Drydene 311(Part I) at Dover International Speedway did more than simply signify that Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team had earned their sixth win of the 2020 season. The waving of that flag also served to indicate that the NASCAR Cup Series was back on schedule as had been originally planned by the series months ago.
Had there been no coronavirus outbreak, the schedule would have called for a tour stop in Dover on Sunday. And as of now, the plan is for the NASCAR Cup Series to contest the races that were originally designed to carry the 2020 season to its championship-deciding conclusion in Phoenix on November 8th.
The shutdown of virtually every sport, including all forms of racing, resulting from the world-wide pandemic put the NASCAR season on hold from March until May as restrictions were put in place that would not allow for any form of competition to take place. Those restrictions were then lifted in piecemeal fashion as each state set up its own plan for reopening its particular area.
NASCAR officials then enacted a plan of action that initially called for races to be contested at facilities that would require the least amount of travel as the sport’s top division would stage a series of one-day shows to prevent the need for air travel and overnight hotel stays. This caused both the sanctioning body and its tracks to demonstrate great flexibility as the schedule had to be completely remade for the summer months.
Further, a set of strict guidelines for teams, media, and officials was put in place that called for reduction in the numbers of those who would actually travel to the track, on-site health screenings, masks, social distancing, and other preventative measures. As a result, there were relatively few positive COVID-19 tests within NASCAR following the return to action, with drivers Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon being the most high-profile cases to be reported. Each of those racers missed only one event before successfully going through readmission protocols and rejoining the circuit.
Not only was NASCAR the first major sport to return to action, but a valid argument could be made that it has been the most successful. Where the NBA, the NHL, and Major League Baseball have had multiple players to either opt out of their seasons or test positive for the illness, some of whom were seen in nightclubs and other places in which they were among crowds of people, NASCAR’s efforts as well as the adherence to the restrictions by its teams have provided a pandemic success story.
While the events have run completely void of fans or with only a limited number of spectators in attendance, those who enjoy the sport have been able to watch their favorites do battle on the track by way of television. For some time, NASCAR was the only one of the major sports to be contesting live events for competitors and fans which essentially allowed the sport to have sole possession of the spotlight.
Obstacles such as government regulations, weather, and the ever present threat of a spike in number of cases of illness were overcome with exceptional planning both prior to and during NASCAR’s return to the track. And of course, there is still the looming possibility of a second wave of sickness or increased government involvement. But as things stand right now, the leadership and the participants of the sport deserve a pat on the back for their efforts to restart and maintain racing during what has to have been the most challenging chapter ever faced.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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