With Chase Elliott winning the season finale on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway and becoming the champion of the Cup Series, NASCAR allowed itself a moment of congratulations for completing its most challenging year.
“What a remarkable way to end it,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s president.
If Elliott, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in 2019, were to win that award again, he would become the first driver to win it and a championship in the same year since his father, the Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, in 1988.
“Awesome, awesome, awesome!” screamed Elliott, the 24-year-old son of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, as he took the checkered flag. He finished three seconds ahead of Brad Keselowski, who was followed closely by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, the retiring seven-time series champion.
“What we have accomplished during this global pandemic is, I think, nothing short of remarkable,” Phelps said. “We ran all 36 of our races. I believe we are the only professional sport that can claim it ran its full schedule in 2020.
“It’s just unprecedented in the history of our country, in the history of sports, and certainly in the history of our sport. I would suggest this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport.”
When the Cup Series was shut down in early March three events into its season, no one knew when, or if, it would return. To come back, the series had to reinvent itself. On May 17, NASCAR racing returned in an unusual format — a single-day event in Darlington, S.C., with no fans in the stands.
“A bunch of midweek races, three doubleheaders, no practice and qualifying,” Phelps said. “Things that were kind of significant — in bedrock — that we do, right? You come to the racetrack, you’re here for three days, you practice, you qualify, you race, right?”
That structure went out the window, as NASCAR tried to regain its footing. The goal was to run a full schedule of races, but no one knew if the new plan could be sustained, or if the sport might face another shutdown.
In addition to racing without fans in the stands — until a small number were allowed back over the final races — crews were limited. Instead of multiple days of preparation at the track, teams showed up on the morning of the event and raced without any practice or qualifying. They raced at new venues, under unfamiliar conditions: At one track they raced in the rain for the first time.
Phelps said the sport started the 2020 season with great optimism that recent economic difficulties, dwindling attendance and disappointing television ratings were behind them.
“We were a sport that was coming back,” Phelps said.
But then came the shutdown. How would NASCAR regain that momentum?
“If you think about where we are as a sport today, I believe we’re stronger as a sport today than we were pre-Covid,” Phelps said. “I believe that.”
NASCAR banned the display of Confederate flags at its facilities. It banished one of its top drivers, Kyle Larson, after he used a racial slur during an online gaming event. It stood in unity with Darrell Wallace Jr., the only Black driver in the top series, after someone apparently left a noose in his garage stall at an Alabama event.
“What we do from a social justice standpoint moving forward really to me is about human decency,” Phelps said. “We want to make sure that people want to come to our facilities. We want to make sure they want to participate in this sport on television, radio, digitally and socially. We want them to feel part of this community.”
Although President Trump had attended the season-opening Daytona 500, NASCAR later broke with the president in its approach to the coronavirus, requiring strict protections for everyone who set foot on the property at a NASCAR event. Masks were always mandatory.
As a result, only two of the many coronavirus tests given to NASCAR drivers the rest of the season came back positive — for Johnson and Austin Dillon — and those may have been false positives, since subsequent tests came back negative.
Now, Phelps believes NASCAR has the momentum to carry itself through a three-month off-season, until its 2021 schedule kicks off at Daytona International Speedway in early February. It includes 28 one-day shows and eight with practice and qualifying.
It is possible, Phelps said, that the sport may not be in a position to revert to some of its traditions, like welcoming a full contingent of fans, until 2022.
“What does that look like in ’22, as we unveil a new car? Probably a lot more practice and qualifying. How much, and what does it look like? Really, it will be determined when we get a little closer to that particular season.”
But how much of the pre-pandemic NASCAR atmosphere will come through at the 2021 Daytona season opener?
“Do I believe we’re going to have fans in the stands? I do,” Phelps said. “What percentage of fans in the stands? I’m not sure.”
When will it be safe enough for fans to return to the garage areas, fan midways, infields and grandstands? The answers to those questions are dependent on the coronavirus itself, and the success or failure of efforts to control it. Phelps said he welcomed any effort to improve the health, safety and security of everyone involved.
“The great news is that the racing, again, arguably is as good as it’s ever been,” he said.