COLUMN: NASCAR Playoff Preview

NASCAR keeping pace despite COVID-19 setbacks

While most sports leagues are concluding their respective postseasons outside a normal schedule, only one is right on time. 

In a ‘normal’ world you don’t get the NBA playoffs in August, or the Stanley Cup Finals in September? Despite these changes in post season schedules, the NASCAR playoffs starting around Labor Day is standard. 

However, having to face off against those sports for ratings now is quite unusual.

To understand why starting a 10 race journey to crown a champion this time of year is commonplace for NASCAR, we must look back to last year. 

On Mar 26, 2019, NASCAR unveiled the new 2020 cup series schedule. Many drivers were asking for changes to the “stale” schedule which became normal for many years. Reactions from fans were mixed, but without a doubt the changes have made the 2020 slate more interesting than prior seasons.

Some of the shake-ups included: a night race at historic Martinsville Speedway for the first time ever in May, Pocono Raceway condensing both of it’s race weekends into a doubleheader in June and the Homestead-Miami speedway no longer being the season finale as it had been since 2002. Now, the race takes place in March. 

More changes included the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis being run on 4th of July weekend, Darlington Raceway opening the playoffs Labor Day weekend, Bristol Motor Speedway hosting a playoff race for the first time and a cut-off race nonetheless. 

Now, the Championship going west to Phoenix in November, and most of all, Daytona’s second event being the regular season finale in late August, proved the 2020 season to be unlike any season before it.

What an understatement these were. 

On March 12, the sports world stopped.

In a 24-hour span, the NBA and NHL suspended their seasons, while all NCAA winter and spring championships were canceled.

The next morning NASCAR was one of the few ‘holdouts.’ NASCAR had yet to postpone, suspend or cancel its season.

As a longtime fan, who sat through a four-hour rain delay last year, which included a race finish around 2:30 a.m., I knew they would wait until the last minute to pull any plugs.

Fast-forward to March 12, at 11:39 a.m., NASCAR waited until the last moment to postpone the next two weekends races’ at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami. The following Monday, all races were postponed through May 3, but with two key stipulations. 

All 36 races would be run, and all 10 playoff races would go unchanged. 

For weeks following, it seemed impossible as every week not on the track was another race to make up at a later date. 

However, on April 30, the skies cleared as NASCAR announced racing would resume on May 17, at Darlington Raceway, for the first event in nearly two months.

To make this happen, a great deal of improv and cooperation was needed.

Some tracks lost events this year, while others gained events temporarily. Some races were run on weeknights, while more doubleheaders were created. 

All races were operating with a fluid schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With everything planning to go on as scheduled, putting everyone’s safety at the top of the list the top priority.

Somehow, the mission was accomplished. With only a few cases among crew members and just two drivers having to sit out one race each after positive tests, here we are.

The playoffs began Sept 6 at Darlington. 16 drivers will battle for 10 races, with four seeing their title hopes end after every three races. This will go on until four racers remain for the championship race in Phoenix, AZ. This is where one driver will make history.

Just as it was planned a year prior to the pandemic, the road got tougher and had a few more right turns than usual.

Nevertheless, we made it. Now gentlemen start your engines!