The NASCAR playoffs start this weekend. The first of 10 races for the NASCAR Cup Series’ postseason begins with Sunday’s Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN) at the Darlington (SC) Raceway. With that being said, this year’s playoffs is going to look a lot different than years past.
First off, we’re starting it earlier and doing so at Darlington. There’s new tracks in the playoffs with some wild cutoff races too. But, we’re also doing this in the middle of a global pandemic as well. That takes tons of planning and precaution. There’s danger and high stakes involved on and off the track now.
So, for the 16 eligible playoff drivers, how do they handle the next 10 weeks because of this? We’ve seen a couple of COVID cases in the NASCAR garage already this year, two of which being drivers.
On Tuesday, Steve Phelps said that if a driver is to miss a race between now and the checkered flag at Phoenix on Nov. 8 due to coming down with the virus, they won’t receive any points for that event too. In turn, that likely would end any championship shot for that driver due to missing a full playoff race. To score zero points, well it would crush their hopes of a title in November.
They’d have to win in order to move on at that point. So, are the playoff drivers doing anything differently over the next 10 weeks to be extra cautious? Do they just live in their own “bubble” and not leave the house other than to race? Do they even go and get a test if they’re exhibiting symptoms knowing the fear could lead to being eliminated from the playoffs?
Most said that they’ll keep doing what they’ve been doing throughout the 22 races during the pandemic but will maybe tighten up a little bit more now since it is playoff time and the risk is going to be greater for them to contract it. They said that as places are starting to open back up again, it’s probably best to be even safer than before and just think of the bigger picture for what’s a stake professionally for them.
“Do we sit around and talk about that? No, not really,” Ryan Blaney said. “You just have to be as smart as you can and be as safe as you can, not going out, not doing anything that you wouldn’t normally do. I plan on not doing anything different. You just stay smart.”
His teammate Joey Logano agrees.
“As the world is starting to open up slowly and things like that, I think for these 10 weeks, I probably still need to be smart about it because my season is on the line,” said the 2018 champion. “It’s also important that we need to win this thing, too. Sometimes going and doing everything through this Zoom isn’t as effective as you want it to be, and it’s the same when you’re trying to lead a team.
“So, just trying to do things the smartest way possible, trying to lead a team from a distance, but in the times where it’s important to see people or do things, those are the moments you have to make the most of but also be careful about the way we do it.”
For Clint Bowyer, he’s just going to remain status quo. He notes that you can do everything perfect, but still come down with it.
“Gas mask,” Bowyer joked on if he’s doing anything differently now in comparison to the regular season in terms of COVID prevention. “Same precautions you take. It sucks. It’s pretty crazy to me that we’re this far along and we still really don’t know a whole lot more than where we’re at. It’s crazy times.
“Nevertheless, you’ve got to take care of yourself. I’m probably not going to go to a college and hit up a keg stand. I’m probably not going to do that. I’m saying that probably would be a good opportunity to find yourself pointless.
“The seriousness comes if you have COVID, you can’t race. That sucks. I mean honestly, the thing sucking worse than that is, I’ve talked to both of them (drivers Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson that tested positive) that had it and probably had worse hangovers and they couldn’t race. It is what it is.
“It’s not a judgmental call when the ref calls a foul in a basketball game, you don’t get a chance to go plead your case and get it overturned. It is what it is and it’s done. I mean it’s very unfortunate that Jimmie Johnson didn’t get into the playoffs because he had COVID that was completely out of his control.
“Honestly, you can do all the things and you might get it opening your car door. There’s a lot of things precautionary things you can do but there’s a lot of things out of your control in my opinion. You have to put this thing back in gear. Our kids gotta go to school. They’re going to be around people. There’s a lot of things that are real. But, you’ve got to pray that it doesn’t happen to you and do everything you possibly can to stay away from it.”
Most other drivers maybe didn’t put it that bluntly, but they do say that they do have to avoid larger crowds away from the track, but their lives can’t stop. They have to do anything that they normally would do like the rest of us to remain healthy and hope for the best.
Another part of this is, crowds have been coming back to the stands too. Yes, in smaller capacities, but granted they’re back. Some races in the playoffs will have them. Some won’t. But, it’s great for the sport to get back to some normalcy too heading into the postseason.
“There was a damn crowd there last weekend,” Bowyer said of Daytona. “It was a shot in the arm for the sport and a breath of fresh air for everybody involved. I was across the street at Bass Pro Shops and it was like ‘yes we’re back. This what getting close to what normalcy is.’ I’m excited about that.”
So, would drivers benefit by just staying at home and the only time leaving is to go race on Saturday night or Sunday’s? Sure. But, they’re not robots. They do have to take extra precaution, but it’s going to be a survival of the fittest here over the next 10 races on and off the track.