A retrospective piece on 2020 might seem premature. Because, well, it would be. The NASCAR season is still underway.
My editor asked me to write a column about all of the rain delays NASCAR has suffered this year and that inevitably made me think of the Daytona 500 in February. Remember that time? With the frolicking fans? The lack of masks and blissful ignorance? I do. Barely.
That race was my first taste of NASCAR, but I’ve come to learn it was NASCAR in rare form: An appearance by the president, a rain-postponed race, a gut-wrenching wreck. Individually, none of those are first-time experiences for the sport, but all of those factors culminating on the same season-opening weekend? We should have known we were in for it this year.
“I’ve been covering this sport for 20 years,” a fellow reporter from Kickin’ The Tires told me Sunday as we made our way out of Texas Motor Speedway without watching a full Cup race due to yet another weather-related postponement this season. “I don’t think it’s ever been this bad.”
That delay dragged on another entire day with an official second postponement coming at 6 p.m. Monday. They’ll try again at noon Tuesday (Eastern time).
In addition to the never-before-experienced global pandemic, nearly 40% of NASCAR’s Cup races have been impacted by weather this year. That is 13 of the 34 events, including Texas, have been either red-flagged, delayed or postponed by rain, lighting and now mist. NASCAR president Steve Phelps said in March that the sport’s scheduling situation would remain “fluid.” He didn’t know at the time his quote would be spun into a terrible pun by reporters months later.
Texas Motor Speedway was supposed to welcome roughly 20,000 to 25,000 fans on Sunday, according to one track official, with the forecast looking bright and slightly cloudy. Instead, the Cup race went green for 52 laps before mist created a slippery track and forced a red flag. The postponement blended into an all-day weather delay Monday with roughly two dozen fans back in the grandstands slogging it out for what would remain an uncertain start time for eight hours.
Mother Nature has really found a way to kick a sport when it’s down.
Through it all, and through this unbelievably trying season, NASCAR has remained adamant that it will race and the season will run in full. That had hardly been doubted in the early days of the pandemic. Seven months since later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pointed out last week that there will not be an asterisk on NASCAR’s 2020 season, and that’s true.
The races might run fanless, shortened or even completed separate weeks, but do not doubt that NASCAR will run a full 36-race schedule and the eventual NASCAR 2020 champion will have earned the full respect of that honor. The playoff race at Texas might run days after it was originally scheduled, fighting through mist and fog and uncontrollable factors, but the season will run to completion someway, somehow.
“Keep your head down and look forward to the next week,” Kurt Busch’s crew chief Matt McCall said during Monday’s weather delay. “That’s the biggest thing is that when you have these lulls, that you’re active.”
McCall said that in addition to calculating some minor adjustments to make to the balance of his team’s No. 1 Chevrolet based on the early laps of the race and predicting how much the cooler temperatures will reduce the grip levels of the track, he is preparing for the weeks ahead as the team vies for a Championship 4 spot. The team is 73 points down in standings and essentially needs a win in the Round of 8 to advance.
“We’re pretty much in a must-win situation,” McCall said. “So trying to get all of that worked out to be in the right spot at the end of the race.”
The balancing act of focusing on the race at hand in a year without practice and with a championship bid on the line is enough to send anyone’s stress levels soaring. Add the pressure of projecting unforeseen track conditions and the maddening uncertainty of when, where and how you will be racing, and that is the NASCAR season in a nutshell.
But McCall put it best, summarizing NASCAR’s forge-ahead mentality in a quick, six-word reply: “It’s just what we do, right?”
Indeed. It’s just what we do.